Friday, December 20, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks is practically perfect

You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn't love Walt Disney's Mary Poppins. The film is practically perfect in every way … but I'm sure there are a few sourpusses out there who hate the movie just as much as the character's creator, author P.L. Travers. The new film Saving Mr. Banks takes a look at Disney's twenty year struggle to get the film made while battling Mrs. Travers at every turn. You may never look at Mary Poppins the same way.

Saving Mr. Banks tells the story of the making of Mary Poppins, and gives us an insight into Mrs. Travers as well. When we first meet her, it's 1961 and she's just about out of money. Disney has been beating on her door for twenty years to secure the rights to her book (the movie actually uses material from three books), and with the prospect of losing her home before her, she agrees to her agent's requests to fly from London to Los Angeles just to meet with Disney to see what he has planned.

Disney tries his best to charm Mrs. Travers, but her demands of what he can and cannot do with the character turn to task of creating a film into a much larger chore than anyone thought it would be. No singing, no animation, nothing red! Travers holds an iron grip on the characters, and things come to a complete deadlock when she realizes that Disney and his creative team actually have no clue what the story is truly about.

But we do as the movie presents Travers' life as a child in flashbacks peppered throughout the film, showing us her doting father allowing her to run wild with her imagination … but also his darker side of alcoholism that constantly has his job in jeopardy and eventually leads to major health issues. When he become totally incapacitated, an aunt arrives to take care of the family and all of the pieces fall into place. Disney also eventually puts the pieces together, and it's no spoiler to say the film gets made and everyone lives happily ever after … at least in the movie world. The real life conclusion to this tale is a little less bright and shiny than we're led to believe.

That one little flaw aside, Saving Mr. Banks is a wonderful film that's really targeted more to adult fans of Mary Poppins than it is to children. Emma Thompson portrays Travers as a tough-willed dame who comes off as a total bitch most of the time, but in the context of her life you have to have some understanding of why she holds on to these characters so tightly. They are her family and she does not want to let them go or be mistreated or misunderstood by some Hollywood bigwig (she hated the finished movie so much that she refused to sell the rights to any more of her Poppins books, although she did agree to the stage musical on the condition that only British writers worked on it and no one from the movie had any participation, which kept the Sherman Brothers from writing any new songs). A lot of people may find Travers unbearable, but I understood where she was coming from and Thompson manages to take some of the edge off of her while still keeping that steely will intact. She's definitely due some awards consideration.

Tom Hanks plays Disney as a down-homey business man. He knows what he wants and he'll do what he has to to get his way. It's a fine performance, but I'm on the fence about the way he uses a kind of sing-songy voice when he speaks to Mrs. Travers. I felt it was a little condescending, and perhaps Travers did too which was way she was so difficult to work with. She probably felt like she was being treated as a child or some rube from the countryside of England who had no idea how Hollywood worked (she didn't, but that's beside the point). It's a fine performance, but this being a Disney film, I don't think they really portrayed Disney on screen as he may have been behind closed doors. I mean, he had to have lost his temper at some point with the demands Travers was making. It would have been nice to see a little more of the dark side of Disney.

Colin Farrell gives a nice turn as Travers Goff, Travers' father (yes, she took her father's name professionally), never letting him be anything but a damaged soul. Goff may have been his own worst enemy, but he has nothing but love and kindness for his daughter even in his darkest hours. B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman play Robert and Richard Sherman, the songwriting brothers who had to convince Travers that "responstible" was a real word (that they just made up) and that they could compose songs that weren't just fluff. Schwartzman gets most of the screen time, and he does a great job of sticking to his guns and never giving up in the face of Travers' naysaying. Paul Giamatti also gives a nice performance as the driver assigned to Travers during her stay in LA, and becomes the only American she can tolerate. He and Thompson have some very nice moments together.

Director John Lee Hancock keeps the film moving along once Travers arrives in Hollywood, getting out of the way and letting his actors do their work. Special mention must be made of the production design and art direction by Michael Corenblith and Lauren E. Polizzi, who have kept the film's period detail remarkably accurate, from a vintage stuffed Mickey Mouse to the look of Disneyland at that time. They really nailed the era.

Saving Mr. Banks may not be Best Picture material – it would have benefited from giving Disney and his team a little more depth instead of making Travers the complete villain of the piece – but it is pleasant and tells a very interesting story that's mostly true (stick around during the credits to hear some of the actual recordings made during the pre-production process and you'll get an idea that Thompson's Travers isn't too far from real life). It's one of those movies that actors are attracted to for rich characterization and awards possibilities, and the audience wins with a quality production that's both enlightening and entertaining.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Elysium is full action and
subtle social commentary

I confess, I have not yet seen director Neill Blomkamp's District 9 so I really had no idea what to expect when walking in to see his latest sci-fi/social commentary flick Elysium, except that they were both filmed in some squalid location in Mexico. The story is fairly simple: Matt Damon plays Max, an ex-con trying to make an honest living without falling back into old habits. He lives on an earth slightly more than a hundred years from now, one that has been over-populated and under-fed, with a lack of decent education and health care. Yes, these are the 99%. The 1% have fled the planet, living on a giant spinning wheel in earth's orbit, Elysium, which resembles a posh Beverly Hills neighborhood on steroids. Anyone from earth who tries to get to Elysium, illegals as they are called, faces immediate deportation or worse.

After an accident at Max's factory job that gives him a full dose of radiation and five days to live, he goes back to his criminal past to try to buy his way onto Elysium. But his former boss wants something in return … a code that can reboot Elysium and grant all of the "illegals" citizenship, allowing them to travel to the space station and partake of things like their miraculous healing machines. Max desperately wants to get to a machine, so he agrees to intercept the code from his former boss at the factory (who works for Elysium's Secretary Delacourt, who will stop at nothing to keep Elysium immigrant-free, including staging a political coup and installing herself as president), but finds out the operation will require an actual operation as the code is downloaded into his boss' brain … and it comes with a self-destruct code in case someone else tries to access it. Will Max survive long enough to get to Elysium and carry out his mission? Will Delacourt get the code from Max and fulfill her desires? Or will Delacourt's mercenary Kruger catch on to her plan and try to steal the code for his own military-style coup?

Right from the start of the movie, you know where Blomkamp's social commentary is heading with a space station full of "Haves" and a planet full of "Have Nots." This is set up in the film's prologue (with Max as a child) and carries through the film yet, unlike the social commentary of the baffling Oscar winner Crash which hit you over the head with it, Blomkamp simply establishes this future as what it is. It's been this way for a long time, so it's really just a matter-of-fact part of the story. Some people have questioned whether the commentary should be more in your face, but I don't think it's necessary. I appreciate not being pounded with the whole issue, but it's always there. It's why Max needs to get to Elysium to get healed, it's why Delacourt wants control of Elysium (and Kruger as well, to some extent). Even when the story shifts to the machinations of the coup, you don't forget why all of this is going on. It was subtle, and for that I applaud Blomkamp for showing that restraint.

While Blomkamp reels in his social commentary, he really cuts loose with the visuals and the action. The scenes of shuttles and androids are simply jaw-dropping. I would assume these are all CGI-created special effects but everything looks real. Placing these kinds of effects in the dirty, dusty environment of earth and having them blend seamlessly with the elements totally sells this as a real place and helps bring the viewer into the story. Matt Damon's performance also helps ground the film in reality. When Max gets sick and then risks his life to retrieve the data, you really feel for him. Even when his story takes a little detour when his childhood friend's daughter is dying, you feel his struggle when he has to tell her he can't help get her to Elysium.

On Elysium, Jodie Foster gets to sink her teeth into what may be her first real villain role, spitting out her dialog with pure venom. Her accent is a little off-putting though, because it looks like Jodie Foster but it doesn't sound like Jodie Foster and sometimes it seemed as if her dialog was dubbed. I just had a real disconnect, but it was still great to see her be pure evil (and interesting to note that she and Damon have only one scene together). Sharlto Copley, who starred in District 9, plays Kruger as a totally unhinged maniac with only one thing on his mind – killing. I was also jazzed to see William Fichtner pop up, however briefly. He always makes things more interesting. Kudos to Blomkamp, too, for not shying away from dealing out some gruesome fates to some of his characters (yes, some people actually explode).

Elysium may get slammed for what appears to be a big set up then shying away from the social commentary, but I appreciated the restraint. Blomkamp tells his story with a great cast and some amazing visuals, and you couldn't ask for anything more from a summer blockbuster. It's got a lot of intricate moving parts that keep propelling the story forward, but it's not going to make you feel that you just got preached at for two hours. I think the fact that the conversation among those who have now seen the movie, discussing the commentary or lack thereof, shows that Blomkamp have have accomplished exactly what he set out to do.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Wolverine has claws,
but they're a little dull

I'm probably the last person who should be reviewing a movie based on a comic book. I read a few comics when I was younger (and worked at a comic book store!), but I have not really moved on to the graphic novels that have taken comic books to a more mature level. I love the movies made from these comics and graphic novels, but I really have no reference on which to base an opinion except for the movie.

And so it is with Marvel's latest superhero movie, The Wolverine, a sequel to the pretty dismal X-Men Origins: Wolverine which was a prequel to the X-Men trilogy, and now works its way into being a lead-in for the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past (make sure you stay part of the way through the end credits). Got all that? Apparently, The Wolverine is based on a graphic novel in which the plot takes Logan, tired of being a superhero after having to kill his love Jean Grey in the third X-Men movie, out of the wilderness he's banished himself to and straight to Japan at the request of an "old friend," a former Japanese soldier whom Logan saved from the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

Logan believes he's going to say goodbye to the dying old man, but the man actually has a deal for him: he has a cure for Logan's immortality. Haunted by the spectre of his beloved Jean (Famke Janssen, reprising her role), Logan briefly considers the deal, but the man dies before he can come to a final decision. Meanwhile, the yakuza are after the old man's granddaughter, Mariko, because she is now the most powerful woman in Japan after being the sole benefactor in the will … something her father is not too happy about. Logan suddenly finds himself as Mariko's self-appointed bodyguard, but there seems to be much more going on than meets the eye.

The Wolverine is certainly a better movie than X-Men Origins: Wolverine, adding a few bits of much-needed humor, but it's also a missed opportunity. Plopping Logan down in the middle of Japan was an inspired bit of plot development, and casting mostly unknown Japanese actors in the supporting roles (plus Russian Svetlana Khodchenkova) puts the audience in Logan's fish out of water shoes. The best of the Japanese cast is Rila Fukushima as Yukio, a Harajuku-looking girl who is a badass with a sword and has some special powers of her own. Will Yun Lee is probably the most recognizable of the supporting cast, but he really has very little to do but react to situations and fight. The film's downfall is Tao Okamoto as Mariko. Okamoto is just perpetually blank throughout the film, whether she's in danger or attempting to romance Logan. Her performance is so bland that I could never tell if she was truly a victim who needed saving or if she was in on the plot to steal Logan's immortality. Okamoto is basically the Japanese Kristin Stewart.

Where the film succeeds is in its action sequences, which are unfortunately top-loaded in the first third of the film, which leaves a truly leaden middle section where Logan and Mariko are hiding out, plotting their next move. The attempted assassination/kidnapping of Mariko at her grandfather's funeral is staged brilliantly, and even as silly as it is (think the Chunnel Train scene in Mission: Impossible), the fight on top of a bullet train is one of the film's highlights. The problem with the plot, though, is the fact that we know that Logan is never in danger of losing his abilities or dying, so where is the suspense? It's hard to care about a character's journey when we know he ain't really going anywhere.

I went into The Wolverine with the lowest of expectations, so to say that it wasn't as bad as its predecessor is at least faint praise. I was just really hoping it would have been better, but a predictable plot and some bad casting have nearly de-clawed everyone's favorite mutant.

Photo: Ben Rothstein/20th Century Fox/Marvel

Friday, July 12, 2013

Pacific Rim is a gigantic hit

Sometime this year, the world was/will be invaded by gigantic monsters, or kaiju, from beneath the sea. Literally, beneath the sea as they are coming from a large fissure on the ocean floor that has a sort of wormhole to another dimension. Got that? And why are we suddenly under attack from these behemoths? Seems they were here once before (the dinosaurs) but the environment was a bit too inhospitable for them. But now, with all of mankind's contributions to the earth's atmosphere, we've basically made the planet a great place for them to live and us to die so the Jaeger program was created to construct gigantic war machines (robots, but not really robots since these are actually piloted by humans) that are our last defense against the kaiju (no other conventional weapons work against them).

But there's a problem … the kaiju are getting bigger and stronger, and some government muckety-mucks think a giant wall around earth's coastal cities will be enough to keep the kaiju out, so they dismantle the Jaeger program. And then the kaiju break through the wall. It's up to retired Jaeger pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) to save the day by rejoining what's left of the program, but his memories of losing his brother during a fight (the Jaegers require two linked pilots basically sharing one brain, so he still has his brother's memories) and the trauma experienced by his new partner may be larger obstacles to overcome.

Pacific Rim is the definition of a summer blockbuster. Director Guillermo del Toro wastes no time in getting the movie started. We get a brief recap of what started in 2013 that leads quickly up to the story of Raleigh and his brother in 2020, to the film's present of 2025. By that time, Raleigh is a construction worker on the wall when he's called back to duty by his former commander, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). The film wastes no time on any major character development, giving us archetypes for supporting characters (a Chinese team of pilots and a Russian team of pilots never get to say a word, but are stereotypically identifiable just by their looks) including a father/son team from Australia, with the son having a chip on his shoulder about washed-up Raleigh returning to the program.

Of the three main human stars, Hunnam is handsome and stoic, but he's almost a bit too bland and reserved. Elba is a commanding presence and really puts his all into the performance, especially when he gets to bark out the film's iconic line, "Today, we are canceling the apocalypse!" Rinko Kikuchi, as Pentecost's right hand, Mako, who becomes Raleigh's left hand, isn't given a whole lot to work with but she manages to take her character's inner pain and put it all right on her expressive face. She really has to have the most internalized performance, but you still can feel her trauma and need for revenge against the kaiju. The little girl who plays the young Mako in a flashback is amazing, registering the child's pure terror while trying to save herself from a kaiju.

But Pacific Rim isn't really about the humans, it's about the kaiju and the Jaegers. If you've ever seen a Japanese monster movie ("kaiju" comes from that particular genre), you should get great joy from Pacific Rim. Del Toro obviously loves the genre of giant monsters smashing major cities, and has gone to great lengths to make each of the kaiju look different and have different abilities. The addition of the Jaeger as an opponent to the kaiju makes the fight scenes more thrilling because, unlike a movie like Transformers where it's hard to tell the robots apart when they're fighting, you have two distinct adversaries so there is no question as to who is fighting who.

The film, however, rests on the success of the CGI effects and they are flawless. You marvel at the effects, knowing these are not people in rubber suits. These characters have real weight to them even though they exist only on a massive computer hard drive somewhere. The film would have fallen apart completely if the audience did not buy what they are seeing, and after the initial wow factor of "how did they do that," you settle back into your seat and enjoy the ride. I had the opportunity to see the film in IMAX 3D, and the experience was amazing. The film looks beautiful, the 3D worked well although it's questionable if it was really necessary, and the sound design pummels your ear drums while helping to sell the illusion of the weight of the CGI creatures.

With only a few minor quibbles (lack of characterization, and the late-in-the-game appearance of a new weapon that should have been used much earlier), Pacific Rim is a blockbuster that should be seen on the big (or biggest) screen. It's a summer popcorn movie, but it's not a sequel or a remake, and it's not a movie based on a TV show, so audiences need to show Hollywood that we can support something original.

Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

Thursday, June 13, 2013

This Man of Steel flies high

I have to say it's not very often that I see a movie, think about it for 24 hours and find even more things to like about it. It's quite often the other way around. Going into a screening of Man of Steel, I was worried we were going to get too much of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight angst and not enough of the charm that has made the character so endearing for seven decades. Not to worry though, Zack Snyder, David Goyer and Nolan have turned out a very well-balanced film full of action and real human emotion.

By now, everyone must have an inkling of Superman's origin story, be it through the comics, the Christoper Reeve movies or TV's Smallville. It's certainly not something that needs to be retold again, taking up the first hour of the movie and boring the fans to tears (like The Amazing Spider-Man did). Snyder and Goyer have opened the film on the planet Krypton and followed the story of the planet's destruction (yes, regardless of the rumors, Krypton does indeed explode) quite closely to Richard Donner's 1978 film … yet it somehow doesn't feel like a retread of something we've already seen. The credit goes to the totally different ecological system of the planet (no ice planet here), and the performances of Russell Crowe (Jor-El) and Michael Shannon (Zod). You know right from the start that Zod is badass, but even pacifist Jor-El engages in a smackdown against him before the Kryptonian council sends Zod and his people to the Phantom Zone.

After baby Kal-El – the first natural born child on Krypton in centuries (they're all manufactured to perform various duties from floor sweeper to politician) – is sent to earth, we are mercifully spared his whole childhood and pick up with a grown Clark navigating life trying to keep his true abilities under wraps. Of course, he does something that gets nosy news reporter Lois Lane on his trail, and here the story does depart from the traditional mythology – Lois knows Clark Kent is not of this earth and he is forced to show her what he can do. It's so refreshing to not have to deal with the whole "why is Lois so stupid that she can't see Clark is Superman" thing. It's like a weight has been completely lifted off of the story, and when Zod and his army arrive on earth (and their escape from the Phantom Zone is very well explained), Lois is just as important to stopping them as is Kal-El (only referred to as Superman in one scene by military personnel).
Once Zod arrives, the film kicks into high gear with an epic battle that stretches from Smallville's Main Street to the center of Metropolis. The question is why does Zod want Kal-El so badly (no, not for revenge for his time in the Phantom Zone), and what are his plans for earth? It's actually quite a chilling scenario that is going to take teamwork from Kal-El, Lois and the military to stop.

I have complained about how Star Trek Into Darkness was nothing more than a rehash of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and if you want to come right down to it, Man of Steel is pretty much a rehash of parts of Superman: The Movie and Superman II. But, whereas I was angry with the direction Star Trek went with the story (if you're going to intentionally break away from the original timeline, then give us original stories, for Pete's sake), I found a lot to like about the way the material was handled in Man of Steel. Did we need to see Zod again? Maybe not, but in the context of this being an "origin" story, it was necessary since he is the most recognizable Kryptonian villain and there is a reason he's on Kal-El's tail. Thankfully, there is no Lex Luthor, although there are references to LexCorp a couple of times.

There is also just enough material in the film that will take long-time fans back to the first two Christopher Reeve movies, but it never feels like it's just there to pander to the fans (I liked that the first time we see Lois, she's getting out of a helicopter instead of into one). And Snyder and his team have managed to ground the film in reality outside of the almost way over-the-top battle between Kal-El and Zod. Scenes with Clark and his mother, or just quiet moments between him and Lois feel authentic, as do the flashbacks to his youth (well, except for the new version of Pa Kent's death), and the actors are playing the characters as if they were in anything but a superhero movie. They're certainly not as earnest as any of the Dark Knight characters, but I totally appreciated the genuine human emotion they bring to the characters. Besides the crazy, Metropolis-leveling battle, my only real eye-rolling moment was when they seemed to go out of their way to let us know this "savior of earth" is 33 years old. I know there have been correlations to Kal-El and Jesus in the past, but this little bit of info was just a bit ham-fisted.

Other than that, and the wretched 3D conversion (we had to wait a whole year for that?!), Man of Steel ranks up there with the best of the superhero films, but the question now is with Kal-El having already saved the planet from an alien invasion of sorts, where can he go next? The Reeve Superman was able to rescue kitties from trees and save California from destruction at the same time, so I hope we get more of those small, charming moments in the next film (already in pre-production). We've seen what the excellent Henry Cavill can do with the character (and he sells one particularly gut-wrenching moment that drew gasps from some audience members, including myself), and I am more than ready to see where he and Kal-El will go next.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Hangover Part III is a
surprisingly clever final act

Full disclosure: I didn't think The Hangover was as funny as everyone else did, and I absolutely hated The Hangover Part II because it was simply a carbon copy of a movie I had just watched the night before on DVD! That being said, I felt I had to subject myself to The Hangover Part III just to see if they even bothered to do something different. The result …

Total surprise! I did not leave the theater angry at having wasted another two hours of my life. The Hangover Part III actually has a story, a new story, a different story, something as far away from the first two films as you can get.

The main plot of The Hangover Part III (and you may be left wondering how the title even makes sense since no one ever actually gets drunk and blacks out during the course of the film … but there is an answer) starts with an intervention on Alan's (Zach Galifianakis) behalf. He's been off his meds for six months, he bought a pet giraffe because he could (and then accidentally decapitates it on the drive home), and has a fight with his beloved father who dies from a heart attack as a result. Alan's family and friends, The Wolfpack, gather to make him an offer he can't refuse, and the guys – Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Doug (Justin Bartha) – go on a road trip with Alan to the rehab center. On the way, their van is run off the road, they are all abducted and brought to a man named Marshall (John Goodman), a character who was mentioned once by "Black Doug" (Mike Epps) in the original movie.

It seems that Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) stole over $20 million in gold bars from Marshall (and clever flashbacks to the first two films help set this plot up) and he wants Chow and the gold, and he thinks the guys are the only key to contacting Chow, who had escaped from a Thai prison in the film's pre-title sequence. It seems that Alan has been a pen pal with Chow while he was in prison, and Chow has emailed him to set up a meeting. Marshall wants the guys to bring Chow to him and he'll be keeping Doug – yes, he's left out of the main action again – as collateral.

The Hangover Part III really works this time – and seems to be getting a raft of negative reviews – because the story drops the whole blackout gimmick and becomes more of a darkly comic action flick. I found the Wolfpack characters to be extremely unlikable in the previous films, but this time they've been softened and humanized just a bit to give the audience characters to engage with and root for, a key element for any movie. The adventure they are drawn into, and the clever plot twists and turns along the way as you never know if Chow and Marshall are being up front with the Wolfpack, really made this an entertaining ride. I appreciated the intricacies of the plot and the clever way characters from the past films – Black Doug, Jade (Heather Graham), "Carlos" (Grant Holmquist, the same baby from the first film!) – have been incorporated into the story. It's these callbacks that really bring the series full circle and give it a very satisfactory ending. Melissa McCarthy also pops up in a pivotal role that gives meaning to the film's title in a brief post-credit segment (so don't leave as soon as the credits start rolling).

As much as I disliked the first two Hangover films, I have to give credit to Todd Phillips for having the balls to really take the story in a different direction, and for the actors and studio willing to go along for the ride. The addition of John Goodman gives the film a bit more respect, in my book, and adding some depth to the Chow character even makes Jeong's performance more bearable. Overall, The Hangover Part III succeeds because it is a different situation with established characters that keeps the puzzle formula of the series intact, but putting the pieces together requires a little more ingenuity. It will be interesting to see how the series' fans take to the new approach but, for me, The Hangover Part III is by far the best in the series.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Great Gatsby is a
work of art

Listening to people talk about the new movie version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's American literature classic, I feel like I may be the only person who has never read the book. I somehow managed to get through high school and college without ever once cracking open the pages of that novel. And on top of that, I've never seen the 1974 version starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, so I really am coming to the story cold. And perhaps for Baz Lurhmann's new epic extravaganza, I'm all the better for it.

The story, for those who don't know, focuses on the elite of Long Island in the Roaring Twenties as seen through the eyes of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire). His cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) has married the wealthy Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), but a mysterious man from her past, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) has set his sights on her, trying – hoping – to woo her with his fabulous mansion directly across the river from her own mansion, or by throwing lavish, wild, booze and music-fueled parties. No one, however, seems to know the real Gatsby or if he even exists. That is until Nick gets an invitation to a Gatsby party … and no one is ever invited to a Gatsby party; they just show up.

Nick befriends the enigmatic man and finds himself a go-between for Gatsby and Daisy. It seems that Gatsby met Daisy once when he was a penniless war veteran, but knowing that he could never live up to her expectations, he deserted her so that he could somehow make his fortune and prove his love to her. Unfortunately, her current marriage has gotten in the way of Gatsby's plans and it's only a matter of time before tragedy strikes and changes the course of everyone's lives.

You're either going to love or hate Lurhmann's The Great Gatsby and I absolutely loved it. Lurhmann can certainly bring excess to the screen (see Moulin Rouge), and this seems to be precisely why so many mainstream critics hate the movie. I was mesmerized by Gatsby's over-the-top parties, complete with music not of the era, but somehow a Fergie song fits very well with the images on the screen.

The cast is a mixed bag of performances. DiCaprio is fine even if he still has a baby face that belies his nearly forty years. His Gatsby is properly enigmatic, but perhaps the character is such a puzzle to begin with that not even DiCaprio can show us who the real person is. Mulligan is lovely and makes Daisy almost untouchable, and sometimes it's hard to see why Gatsby is so infatuated with her. It's hard to know if there's much substance beyond that pretty face, and if Gatsby is only "in love" with her to prove to himself that he is good enough for her. Maguire, unfortunately, is in a perpetual daze and his narration of the story sometimes sounds like he's simply reading a script (or directly from Fitzgerald's novel). Edgerton really is the film's star, bringing life to a character that, I'm told, is not very well fleshed out in the book, but in the movie he's always got an air of danger about him, making you wonder if when presented with the opportunity to go off with Gatsby she finds herself torn simply out of fear for what Tom might do to the both of them. I think it's Edgerton's performance that really makes the rest of the actors work harder and saves the film from being a bore with pretty visuals.

Lurhmann has also chosen to shoot the film in 3D – to the chagrin of people who hate the process and don't understand why a story like this needs the process – and in his hands, he has proven what the process can bring to a film. This is no shoddy conversion. The film was shot on high definition digital video in native 3D, and if you watch closely you can see how Lurhmann has really composed the film for 3D. He uses the depth of field beginning from in front of the proscenium to as far as the eye can see, placing objects in front of actors while the massive sets or exteriors stretch far behind them. Lurhmann's 3D really envelops you in the story while only pulling out the gimmicky stuff – snow, rain, confetti – when necessary. It's very well-balanced and looks gorgeous. While watching the film, I kept thinking that this is how The Hobbit should have looked.

Baz Lurhmann's The Great Gatsby may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I found the performances and the story to be engaging for the most part, the 3D an immersive experience, and the visuals to be absolutely stunning, making this film a true work of art.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Oblivion will blow you away

In the year 2077, humans have left earth and colonized Saturn's moon Titan after a devastating alien attack in 2017 that left the planet uninhabitable. We won the war after using our nukes to take out the aliens, but we lost the planet in the process. Two humans are left to service patrolling drones and protect massive hydro collectors, which are sucking up the earth's oceans to be used as a source of energy on Titan. The humans, Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), are an "effective team," as their mission control leader constantly refers to them, but Jack feels like something is missing.

Five years earlier, Jack and Victoria had their minds wiped so as to make sure if they were captured by any aliens, or Scavs, left on the planet they would not be able to reveal any of humanities last secrets. But Jack has visions of a New York City he never knew, which existed before he was born. And a woman. With two weeks left before making the journey to Titan, Jack has a life-threatening encounter with the Scavs, and sees an object fall from the sky – a space capsule with humans in some kind of stasis. The drones destroy all but one of the survivors, and the one looks exactly like the woman in Jack's memories. And then things get freaky.

Oblivion is a movie best left unspoiled as the plot takes many turns that can leave some audience members dazed and confused. I've been amused by the many people, including some respected film critics, who didn't completely understand what was going on. The film does throw many surprises at you, but the one most people seem to have a problem with is a flashback that really explains the entire movie. I'm more perplexed by people who are confused by this storytelling device than I was about anything else in the movie.

Some people have also said that a major plot point involving the Scavs has been spoiled in the promotional ads, but I wasn't spoiled by anything I saw before the screening. In fact, the movie was nothing that I expected from seeing the trailer, and that's a good thing. You go in with a preconceived notion of what you think the movie is, and come out with your mind blown.

While skirting the film's plot, I have to say that Tom Cruise turns in another solid performance. I can't say that he's playing anyone different than he's played in Minority Report or Mission: Impossible, but it is another solid performance. I guess you could say he's reliable when given this kind of role. I really felt a lot of emotion from Andrea Riseborough's performance as she tries to keep Jack reigned in, even if at times she seemed a little too childlike in the way she looks at him. Olga Kurylenko, as the mysterious woman, is fine but isn't really given much to do except be the catalyst for Jack's actions. And for all the focus on Morgan Freeman in the ads, I think he's in the movie about ten minutes and seems to be playing a futuristic version of Lucius Fox. Nicolaj Coster-Waldau is also in the movie, and Oscar winner Melissa Leo also turns up in a very odd performance. None of them are bad or bring down the movie, but seeing fairly recognizable actors in small, odd or insignificant roles almost takes you out of the action.

That action, however, is terrific and second-time director Joseph Kosinski (Tron Legacy) proves that he has the chops to deliver a visually magnificent film (he also developed the story). Along with his cinematographer Claudio Miranda, they have produced some startling images that could be framed and hung on your walls – vast deserts with tops of skyscrapers jutting out, a shattered moon, a hidden oasis – and they look even more spectacular on the huge IMAX screen, the recommended way to see this film. The sound design is also amazing with some really cool, original sound effects created for the drones. And kudos to Kosinski and Universal for daring to deliver a blockbuster, summer sci-fi flick that isn't a reboot, remake or sequel to something else. Yes, Kosinski does pay homage to many sci-fi films of the past, particularly The Matrix, and throws in a Top Gun reference as well, but these things don't detract from the mind-bending story.

Oblivion may not be a complete sci-fi classic, and it may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I was enthralled by the whole environment Kosinski has created, I was particularly charmed by Riseborough, I was blown away by the visuals and sound design, and I was always kept guessing as to where the story was headed. Some have said the film was too obvious and unoriginal, but I was totally drawn in with wide-eyed wonderment.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Hobbit finds its way to Blu-ray

Warner Brothers is releasing Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on multiple home video formats on March 19 but the big question is will fans of the original Lord of the Rings trilogy be an enamored with this film (and its two coming follow-ups)? Before I go through the Blu-ray, here's a look back at my original review posted on

Wow, has it really been nine years since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was released? It really doesn't seem that long, but it does seem like it's been an eternity since the wheels started turning on production of The Hobbit, what with the rights feuds, a studio bankruptcy, and a director withdrawing even before the first frame was shot. But now it's here, at least the first of three chapters, and the big question now is: was it worth the wait?

The answer is neither yes or no, as the first chapter in the new trilogy is resoundingly average. I remember being enraptured by the first Lord of the Rings movie from the very beginning; the look, the style, the music … everything about it just drew you into the world of Middle Earth. Since we've all been there, settling into a viewing of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, should be like settling into a comfy couch. You certainly know what to expect style-wise with Peter Jackson once again behind the camera, and even the story should have some familiarity to it since we're re-connecting with characters we already know from the previous films (even though this one takes place sixty years earlier).

Unfortunately, what Jackson has done by taking a simple, single volume children's story and turning it into a nine-hour epic is made the movie overly bloated and episodic, especially during the first hour when we're meeting the thirteen dwarfs and getting side stories that do and do not have any bearing on the main story at hand. For instance, Gandalf (Ian McKellan) tells the story of another wizard, Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) and his discovery of a necromancer destroying nature all around him. This side story intrudes on the main story as Gandalf brings news of the necromancer to Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and Saruman (Christopher Lee) who dismisses it as just a man playing with magic. Of course, the necromancer will obviously play into the story as Benedict Cumberbatch was cast in the role (and he's credited, but never seen in the movie ... and will be providing the voice of Smaug the dragon).

The main plot of the book is there, though, between all of the extra stuff Jackson has added. Bilbo Baggins (a terrific Martin Freeman) is enlisted by Gandalf to join a band of dwarfs on their quest to regain their homeland, and gold, from Smaug. Along the way, they have to battle orcs, goblins, trolls, and after getting separated from the group during an underground battle with the goblins, Bilbo meets up with a strange creature, Gollum (Andy Serkis), and comes in possession of that magical, golden ring. It's here that the movie finally kicks into gear with Serkis' amazing performance. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences really needs to rethink their acting categories to include motion capture performances like this, because even though the actor is replaced by a fully realized CG character, his performance is just stunning (and the advances in CG rendering since the last movie has grown by leaps and bounds, making this the most realistic Gollum yet).

Unfortunately, the movie ends just as it's really getting started with the band of travelers seeing their destination for the first time off in the distance. What The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey ends up being is a three-hour origin story that we have to wait a year to see how it pans out. Another problem I had was that the whole thing felt like Jackson was just indulging himself. It took a while for the LOTR films to show us some major battles, but The Hobbit has at least three! The effects are incredible, but it all seemed like a bit of overkill and padding. The story has gotten completely lost amongst all the pageantry. More time should have been spent getting to know the dwarfs, the camaraderie, the journey, instead of just throwing one battle after another at us (and don't get me started on the pointless rock giants fight scene that only served to show off more CGI wonders). As it is, by the end of the movie, you really don't care one way or another about Thorin's (Richard Armitage) quest to get back to his home, and with most of the plot points from the book already included in this movie, you have to wonder how much more padding is to come. I fear that the Hobbit trilogy is going to go down in film history as the new Star Wars prequels trilogy.

When I saw the film theatrically, I saw the new HFR 48 fps 3D version which did not impress me at all. It ended up looking like an old BBC video production that you might have seen on Masterpiece Theater. The sharpness and detail were amazing, but it just didn't look like a movie or have that film-like quality the other trilogy has. It looked surprisingly flat even though it was in 3D, and some of the scenes were overly bright and contrasty with some of the white areas almost blown out. I was hoping that the presentation of the film on Blu-ray would correct some of these issues, but it only seems to magnify the problems. Not that there's anything wrong with the Blu-ray presentation itself, it's the source elements that are to blame. Some of the flat, overly lit scenes are still flat and overly lit. There are also some issues involved with converting the 48 fps down to 24p for Blu-ray, especially in any scene that has a lot of fast motion -- some of the CGI effects move just a bit too fast and there is no motion blur, so they just look like really bad special effects. I wondered if the HFR process was going to impact the eventual home video edition, and it has. The average viewer may not notice but, to me, it stuck out like a sore thumb. The film's audio, however, will give your home theater system a nice workout.

The Blu-ray + DVD combo contains the complete movie on a single disk with no extras, giving the film room to breathe (the DVD is the same). A separate disk contains the bonus material, and while you can't technically call this a "bare bones edition," the bonus material is really nothing new. The bulk of the material is the ten-part video blogs Jackson and his crew produced during the production of the film, and since these were available online before the movie was released, the blogs are mostly a tease for what is to come.  The ten blogs, if you haven't already seen them online are:

  • Video Blog #1: Start of production, April 14, 2011 (HD, 10:32) -- Peter Jackson gives viewers a tour of the various departments preparing for the first day of shooting leading up to day one of production. A look at the welcoming ceremony is very moving.
  • Video Blog #2: Location scouting, July 9, 2011 (HD, 10:20) -- Shooting on the first block has completed, we learn where cast and crew will be spending their break, and Jackson looks for locations for the second block, and the logistics involved in bringing a full cast and crew to a remote area. Interesting tidbit: Jackson mentions shooting the two Hobbit films.
  • Video Blog #3: Shooting block one, July 21, 2011 (HD, 13:19) -- Cast and crew talk about their favorite parts of shooting the first block of production. Meanwhile, Peter Jackson has been transported to England's Pinewood Studios. Ian McKellan has an uncanny knack for remembering all the dwarves' names. A highlight: John Rhys-Davis visits and meets his "father." And there is a surprise cameo at the end, which explains Jackson's location.
  • Video Blog #4: Shooting in 3D, November 4, 2011 (HD, 10:46) -- A nice piece for the tech geeks as Jackson and crew discuss the 3D process (all of the cameras have names) shooting at 48 fps, and how everyone from makeup and costumes to pre-production artists had to adapt to the new formats.
  • Video Blog #5: Locations Part 1, December 24, 2011 (HD, 12:04) -- After weeks of shooting in the studio, the production moves to locations around New Zealand and the logistics involved of moving a huge crew and cast. The Hobbiton location has been under construction for two years, and the new construction has been built from permanent materials for future tourist visits.
  • Video Blog #6: Locatons Part 2, March 2, 2012 (HD, 12:28) -- Production has begun on part two of The Hobbit, but we're back to where we left off on location. The actors marvel at how real everything in the studio looked, and how unbelievable the real locations look.
  • Video Blog #7: Stone St. Studios tour, June 6, 2012 (HD, 13:59) -- A comprehensive look at Jackson's studio including the Weta Workshop.
  • Video Blog #8: Wrap of principal photography, July 24, 2012 (HD, 14:42) -- Jackson and the cast visit Comic Con and present a production reel leading up to the final day of shooting. Another moving moment occurs as Jackson thanks everyone for their hard work and support.
  • Video Blog #9: Post-production overview, November 24, 2012 (HD, 14:08) -- A look at everything that goes into completing the film, including editing, digital effects, sound effects and recording the score.
  • Video Blog #10: Wellington world premiere, December 14, 2012 (HD, 14:42) -- A look at all of the preparations for the world premiere, and the overwhelming turnout in Wellington, NZ.
Also included is a six-minute promotional video apparently produced to promote New Zealand tourism, using the films as its selling point, several Hobbit theatrical trailers and video game trailers. There is also a code included for the Ultraviolet version of the movie which you can stream on a variety of mobile devices whenever and wherever you want. Of course, there will be a deluxe expanded edition coming later this year which will have a lot more bonus material and even more padding added to the movie itself (that it will help bring more depth to the film as the re-inserted material did for the LOTR trilogy is debatable). So, hardcore fans may want to hold out for that edition of the video ... except there is one extra special bonus that those fans will probably want to see: with the code provided in each copy of the home video, owners will be able to access a live video presentation of a first look at The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug hosted by Peter Jackson on Sunday, March 24 at 3:00 PM Eastern/Noon Pacific (an edited version will be archived on the film's website). You just have to decide if the purchase price is worth having access to the live event.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is currently available for Digital Download, and will be available as a Blu-ray combo pack, Blu-ray 3D combo pack, and 2-Disc DVD Special Edition on March 19.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Love is gray
(with a white spot)

February 21, 2013 was a great day that went terribly wrong.

Back in 2000, just before I met my now husband Carl, he had rescued a six-week-old kitten, gray with a little white spot on his chest. When we started chatting online, he showed me some pictures and I actually came up with his name: Stone, because of his gray color. It was many months before I finally met Stone and his daddy in person, and the first thing the kitten did was chew up the edges of the boots I had left sitting on the floor. But I wasn't mad or upset. It was a kitten ... what can you do?

Two years later, Stone and his daddy came to live with me and after a 12 hour drive and arrival at their new home, I was surprised to find Stone curled up next to me in bed. He barely knew me, but he was comfortable enough with me to sleep next to me instead of his daddy. I thought that was so adorable, but I felt bad too. I didn't want any resentment because the cat had suddenly chosen me over the person that had taken him in in the first place. Not to worry though; we just had a one night stand, and Stone really never slept next to me like that over the next 11 years.

We had many, many good times with our little kitty. He was always a source of entertainment, of joy and love, and he had some mischief in him as well. One day we smelled something odd, like cat pee and electricity ... which was exactly what it was! He had peed on a power strip. Thankfully, it was early in the afternoon instead of the middle of the night so we found the power strip and unplugged it before there was any real damage (although the carpet did get a little scorch mark on it). Unfortunately, this incident of marking his territory became rampant throughout the first floor of the house and we had to take action. A visit to the vet showed no physical reason for this to happen, so we had to put him on mood altering medication. The pills helped, but they really screwed up Stone's digestive system. It got so bad for him that we finally took him off the pills and we decided we would deal with the spraying if it happened again.

But, he seemed to be a brand new kitty after a change in his diet -- I became Stone's personal chef, preparing him a healthy batch of food once a week consisting of ground turkey or beef, some veggies and vitamins -- and we were all one big happy family again. Stone was a lucky cat, getting a chance to travel to Florida, spending the night in Savannah and doing some shopping there as well (we carried him around town in his carrier), hanging out in the back yard when the weather was nice, watching the squirrels come up on the porch for some peanuts, trying to grab the birds on the windowsill huddling under the awning during a rain storm, and just being loved in general. He was such a cool cat that he'd pose and let us put silly hats and sunglasses on him for photo shoots!

The peeing issue returned, more meds followed, rugs had to be torn up and furniture replaced, but we got it all under control again. But shortly before the new year, Stone suddenly decided he didn't want to eat the food I had prepared for him anymore. I thought maybe he had a bad batch of ground turkey, so we got some cat food at the store (he'd not been able to eat any commercial cat food without getting sick) and discovered that some of his digestive problems were gluten-related. We found several varieties of gluten-free and grain-free foods which he would nibble at or just walk away from. We didn't know what his problem was because he seemed to want to eat, but when we put the food down, he walked away. His behavior was otherwise normal. A visit to the vet showed some elevated enzymes in his liver due to not eating, so we tried other foods and eventually liquefied his food and gave it to him with a dropper.

I could see he was losing weight, but I held out hope that there was a simple answer to whatever issues he was having with his food. Maybe his teeth hurt. We had them cleaned, he ate two bowls of food right after, and then slacked off again. After a couple of days of not eating, we had to go back to the vet again on February 18, 2013. They admitted him, gave him a feeding tube, and also some solid food which they said he was eating. An ultrasound was scheduled for the 20th to see what was going on internally, and we went to see him the evening after that procedure was performed. He was very doped up, but looked like he had gained a little weight. He let us hold him for a bit, but I don't know if he really was aware of who we were. On the 21st we were given some good news -- he had a blockage of his bile duct that was operable and arrangements were made to get him to a facility for the operation. Thinking I would see him later in the evening, I went to work while his daddy and my father took him to be cared for. Then I got a call ... the diagnosis was completely off-base. The blockage was more severe than we thought, most likely cancerous with more cancer in his body, and even if we did the operation he would need chemo which would diminish his quality of life and maybe extend his life for weeks or months, a year tops.

To say that we were devastated is an understatement. We had to make the most horrible decision any pet owner has to make. Do we act selfishly and try to force him to eat, or do we let him go? After many, many questions and answers with the doctor, we had to make the only, best decision possible for Stone. We had to let him go. Our hearts were shattered in a million pieces because we started the day with a pet, a member of our family, that we thought would be home soon and ended the day with nothing but heartache. We cried for at least 24 hours, looking to place blame on the vet for promising us hope, and taking on guilt myself for not being there to support Carl or say goodbye to our baby boy. It's just been the most awful time I've ever been through.

But, we are healing slowly. I still get teary-eyed reading the supportive comments from my friends on Facebook, and remembering the uniqueness of our cat, the way he would give high fives, the armpit massages, how he would "talk" to us when we asked him things, the funny positions he would sleep in. But while remembering the good times, I look back now on the last month and a half and realize that I knew he was sick but I didn't want to admit it. I am the King of Denial when it comes to illness. I just figure that whatever ails you, you'll always get better.

During those last few weeks of his life, Stone began acting differently. Not personality-wise, just some of his behavior was odd. He was always wanting to go outside. In the morning, instead of head-bumping my leg for his food, he would sit and stare at the basement door. Deep down in my gut, I knew that if I let him go into the basement, he would find a small, dark place to curl up in and he would not be coming back on his own. I just knew that, but I was more intent on fixing him than letting him go. I mean, he was only 12 years old. We could get another eight years out of him, right, because he seemed to be in good health except for the eating? But he started doing other things too, like getting in my lap and letting me cuddle him or letting him give me armpit massages ... something he hadn't done with me in a very long time. He would get up on the box chairs in the living room and sit on the arms right between the two of us. He got in bed and snuggled between us under the covers. In the 11 years he was with us in this house, he's only ever done that a couple of times, preferring to sleep on the edge of the mattress or at the foot of the bed. I know now that he was telling us that he loved us, he wanted us to know that he appreciated the life we gave him, he wanted us to know that he was our baby, but by allowing us that time to love him more he was also telling us that it was his time to go. He wanted us to know it was okay to let go, that we would always have that love in our hearts and that wherever he was in spirit, that love and appreciation he had would never die.

So, when we were given the news that an operation would give us our boy back, we were ecstatic, never thinking that just a few hours later we would never see our Stone again. It's been very hard. I've been through such grief over the loss, over having to make that decision even though I selfishly wanted to keep him with us. I've been angry at the vet for giving us such false hope, for not being there to say goodbye and comfort Carl. I cried for about 24 hours straight just seeing Stone's face in my mind's eye and replaying the telephone conversation, hearing Carl sobbing on the phone while telling Stone that I loved him, coming home and embracing Carl and sobbing while Carl kept saying, "My boy is dead." It's the absolute worst thing I've ever been through. And now I need to write all of this down as my own catharsis so I can move on and celebrate Stone's life, and remember all the good times we had with him, all the love and laughs he gave us. We will never forget him. And we will keep his memory alive. Losing Stone and letting him go has left a giant hole in our hearts, one that can never be replaced ... but we still have more love to give and we will move on with a new little buddy to share that love with. Whoever chooses us will never be Stone, and that's fine. Stone was most definitely one in a million.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Finding love with
The Men Next Door

Getting the Hollywood studio machine to tackle an honest gay love story is a rarity, so it comes down to the indie filmmakers of the world to create films for smaller, target audiences. One of the most prolific indie producers in the marketplace today is Guest House Films, which has produced and distributed a variety of LGBT films with titles like Make the Yuletide Gay, Blue Briefs, Black Briefs, and Role/Play. The quality of these films, and others not from Guest House, vary wildly in quality (writing, acting, production). For the most part, I've been really disappointed with films targeted at LGBT viewers because I've found most of them to be cynical in their depiction of gay men. The message always seems to be that gay men don't want or can't be in a committed, long-term relationship, and as we continue to fight for equal rights for LGBT people, especially on the marriage front, I just find this message disheartening.

Director Rob Williams' Role/Play left a bad taste in my mouth with its depiction of relationships between several gay men, so I was a little hesitant to commit to his latest film, The Men Next Door. The story focuses on Doug (Eric Dean), a 40-year-old man with a group of the worst friends in the world. None of them show up for his milestone birthday party (at this point I was already prepared for the worst from the film), but at least his brother sends him a stripper. Unfortunately, it's a woman (bro thought he would send something Doug didn't already have). Doug manages to get the woman out of his house just as a man arrives whom Doug also thinks is a birthday gift from his brother. Turns out, he's the new neighbor who doesn't mind being mistaken for a stripper and allows himself to be unwrapped. Doug feels a connection with 30-year-old Colton (Benjamin Lutz), but he's also seeing another man, the 50-year-old Jacob (Michael Nicklin). What Doug soon discovers is that Jacob and Colton are … father and son! They try to keep each relationship on the down low, but they all come crashing together at one point and Doug tries to balance both as he makes a decision on who to stay with. The question is, can Colton and Jacob manage to maintain their own relationship while Doug weighs his options?

I hate to give anything away, so I will try to be as spoiler-free as possible, but I have to say that I was ultimately charmed by The Men Next Door because of its more adult and realistic (well, as realistic as you can be with this situation) attitude towards gay men and relationships. For once, everyone involved in this triangle wants to be in a committed relationship. That's real progress for one of these movies! Williams' writing is honest and funny when it needs to be, even when some of the supporting characters fall into classic gay stereotypes. Doug's one female friend, Evelyn (Heidi Rhodes), is a bit over-the-top though, coming off as either insane, drunk, or both anytime she's in a scene. Lutz sometimes comes off as a bit wooden, but he's easy on the eyes. Nicklin and Dean, however, give very good performances and Dean is just so endearing that you really can't help but fall in love with him (and I have no idea if any of these actors are gay in real life, but they all seem very comfortable with each other … and there are quite a few scenes of nudity).

To me, The Men Next Door is Williams' most accomplished film to date from a production standpoint, to the caliber of acting and maturity of the writing. And I'm so happy to finally see a movie about gay male relationships that has a happy ending. In the crowded field of LGBT movies that cast a cynical eye on love, you can actually cuddle up with that someone special in your life on Valentine's Day with The Men Next Door and come away feeling good about your own relationship.

The Men Next Door is available on DVD from and other online retailers. Amazon also offers a digital version for purchase or rent. The DVD is also available to rent from Netflix.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Doctor's Wife isn't
who you'd expect

With marriage equality finally legal in Maryland, there are probably still a lot of questions weighing on the minds of those who are planning to tie the knot, mainly about how they will be received as a married couple. One would hope that with marriages now being legal, that society would simply change overnight and accept everyone as equal but there are sure to still be some out there who will react negatively.

While things are slowly turning in America, Australia's political leaders are still against marriage equality even though most polls show public support on the issue. A new documentary from the land Down Under might be a good starting point for people who may view same-sex couples as a threat or just something alien to a "normal" married couple.

The Doctor's Wife tells the true story of Vincent Cornelisse, a doctor from Brisbane, and his partner Jonathan Duffy, a performer/filmmaker. To pay back Vincent's medical school loans, he has the opportunity to take on a position as a country doctor in the tiny town of Mundubbera, population at just under 2000. It's sort of like the fictional set-up from the TV series Northern Exposure. Jono is torn about leaving the big city and his job, but it's the only way Vinny can pay back the loan. So they pack up their belongings and head to the country. The film, which was put together by Jonathan, tells their story from a first person perspective.

The documentary starts off with Jonathan and Vincent relating how they first met, which is pretty humorous since they both thought the other was a drug addict, and features reactions from their friends and family members to their big move to the country. Some are scared for them, some think they'll become local celebrities … but to Jonathan's horror, he realizes that most of them think he's a "screaming queen" and will stand out – not in a good way – in a small country town (he's really not that bad, at least not how he appears in the film).

But something happened when they arrived in Mundubbera: they were embraced with open arms. Everyone in town knew a new doctor was coming from the article in the paper, and they were (mostly) aware that he had a partner who was male because they didn't hide that in the announcement. It seemed that the key to their success in town – besides Vincent being the best doctor they've had in thirty years – was that they got involved in the daily life of the town, from eating at the local pub to joining various committees. The townspeople compare Jono to the past doctor's wives (a term he whole-heartedly embraces) and speak of how none of those before him ever got involved, setting themselves apart from the locals which made them all feel that the doctor and his wife were better than them. Their involvement in the community (mostly Jonathan's, since Vincent worked tirelessly at the hospital) made them the most-loved people in town. But the fairy tale has a bittersweet ending that I won't spoil.

As a documentary of Vincent and Jonathan's lives during this major transition, I enjoyed seeing what they accomplished and hearing from their new friends just how easily they were accepted by the townspeople, young and old (and it wasn't all sunshine and rainbows as one person recants a discussion featuring the usual "it's not right because the Bible says so" argument, but that seemed to have been an isolated occurrence). I was in tears by the end because it was so uplifting and it gives one hope for the world, that if people can just see that we're all the same no matter who we love, that we can all live in this world together.

What I didn't like about the movie is more on the technical side, and coming from a production background, perhaps those things bother me more than the average viewer. As it is, I absolutely hated some of the transitional elements used between scenes, some of the more pretentious montages (including one lengthy shot of Vinny's and Jono's faces in a split screen with one on the left and one on the right as they opened and closed their eyes), and the awful ink blot animation that really stood out from the rest of the movie and made things appear more sinister than it should (it seemed more like a filter in iMovie that Jonathan just couldn't resist using and it bugged me). I did like the split screen of Jono talking to himself, even if I could clearly see the dividing line.

Those technical issues aside, the film shows the positive side of a situation that most people might expect would go terribly wrong. And it really gets the message of acceptance across without beating the viewer over the head. Perhaps those that still have an intolerant attitude would have their eyes opened by this movie, while those of us on the other side of the matter who still fear that intolerance could also learn that just being yourself and being a part of the community as a whole, not just the insular LGBT community, could go miles in showing everyone else that we're all human beings no matter who we love.

The Doctor's Wife is available on DVD and from Amazon Instant Video, and includes a director's commentary, deleted scenes, and a "Shameles Self Promotion" video.