Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Klondike's Golden Era

Right from the start of the The Discovery Channel's new gold rush mini-series Klondike, the network doesn't shy away from moving in on Game of Thrones' profitable claim. The credits intro to Klondike is an ominous melange of cellos and violins while images dart across a ye old map - sound familiar?

Discovery didn't stop there. They even plucked Scottish actor Richard Madden, who plays Robb Stark in the smash hit GOT series. However, these attempts at coat-tail riding can be forgiven because the show delivers an encompassing tale with strong characters and majestic Canadian scenery.

The one noticeable difference between Klondike and its medieval counterpart is an absence of graphic gore and nudity. Discovery is a basic cable channel so it's bound to be more family friendly. For me this wasn't an issue, but others more accustomed to HBO's blood and guts will probably find it somewhat subdued in comparison.

Klondike tells the story of Bill Haskell (Madden) and his journey to the Yukon during the 1890s gold rush. Haskell and his childhood friend Epstein survive the treacherous mountain paths to Dawson City, where they stake a claim on a muddy hill. Panning rocks and shovelling dirt soon cease when Epstein meets an untimely death by an unknown assailant. His death sends Haskell into a character-defining conflict between seeking revenge and seeking his fortune.

There's plenty of interesting subplots in Klondike that keeps the action moving. There's the conscientious mountie battling a corrupt Ottawa politician who wants to pave way for big development by exterminating the local indigenous population. There's also Tim Roth playing The Count, the town's most villainous character, a morally bankrupt man who kills for thrills and wants to take over Dawson.

Sam Shepard is a preacher fighting a losing battle establishing religion in a place where all hope is lost and gold lust clouds all judgment, while Abbie Cornish is Belinda, a steely-nerved businesswoman who takes a shine to Haskell. Famous American writer Jack London is also on the scene collecting stories and emptying whiskey bottles.

The supporting cast is exceptionally strong and none of the subplots felt forced into the overall story, which is based on this book by Charlotte Gray.  

Jack London flanked by Epstein (l) and Haskell (r)

It's worth pointing out how impressive the set designs and location choices are in this series. The details of the town really make the era come to life and when the elements turn ugly - rain, mud, wind and filth - you really feel it. You keeping thinking to yourself - why would anyone put themselves through this? For a shaky dream of striking it rich? I can't definitively say I wouldn't have done the same.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Beautiful Lakeside Hell

This Netlix-available mini series stars Elizabeth Moss as a small-town New Zealand detective caught up in the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old.

Moss, best known for playing the Peggy Olson character in Mad Men, is an American actress and her NZ accent comes and goes a bit like a Kiwi poking its head out from behind the bushes. By the second episode you get over it and stop being petty because the show is often quite intriguing and the scenery stunning of the idyllic lakeside community.

The missing girl is named Tui and her father, played by Peter Mullan, is the town's main shady character. He proves why in the first episode and you immediately assume the worst when it comes to the identity of the father of Tui's baby.

Meanwhile, a self-help retreat for woman has set up shop at lakeside parcel of land called Paradise. The group is led by a mercurial guru named GJ, played by Holly Hunter and hardly recognizable in a grey wig and speaking clipped philosophical one-liners. Mullan's increasingly-detestable Matt claims familial ownership of Paradise and routinely attempts to intimidate the group, many already victims of male aggression, and scare them out of town.

At first glance the series feels like a typical mystery premise where an outsider detective uncovers seedy secrets behind a small-town facade. But Robin is local (returning from Australia) and tragic events in her past are intertwined with the area. It's in the context of these past traumatic events that Moss's acting really shines.  

Upon her return Moss re-ignites a romance with an old-flame named Johnno (Thomas Wright), who lives in a tent by the lake and is fresh off an eight-year stint in a Thai prison for drugs. Yes he is quite a catch! But Johnno represents the only decent male character in a show populated by thugs, murders, drug dealers, bullies, bikers, rapists, misogynistic cops and sexual predators, both recovering and active. What woman in her right mind would live here?

Although the show is stunning in its ability to set a mood and contrast the area's natural beauty with ugly, disturbing events and sinister characters, I agree with Mike Hale of the New York Times and that many plot-lines fizzle at the end with a conclusion that feels dreamt up solely for shock value.

If this is what rural New Zealand is like, as the series' writer and NZ native Jane Campion would have us believe, then perhaps the area is best experienced from a helicopter.

Thursday, January 16, 2014


The Oscar's Best Picture nominees were announced today and it warming to see Spike Jonze's humanistic future-romance Her in the running.

To cite one of my favourite film critics, Anthony Lane, Her is the right film at the right time. Unlike other nominees such as 12 Years A Slave, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street or Dallas Buyers Club, Her is a story of our time, even if it's set in an unmentioned future date.

Jonze could have easily made a cautionary tale about our increased immersion into technology and the social isolation that it creates. But a two-hour lecture about our phone addictions wouldn't go very far and instead he goes for something deeper and more affecting. It's not our obsession with technology he interested in, it's the potential for romance.

It's been awhile since Joaquin Phoenix has played a character as relatable as Her's Theodore Twombly, a personal letter writer who is coming off a painful separation from his soon-to-be ex-wife. Phoenix usually takes roles that require him to be a twisted, unstable wreck of unhinged emotions. In Her, he's some of that but his pain is more internalized and less loose cannon than we've come to expect.

He purchases a new operating system called OS1 and soon the silken voice of Scarlett Johansson is asking him if she can organize his emails. As Lane also pointed out, if this was the voice of Marge Simpson you would have an entirely different movie on your hands.

Theo and "Samantha" - the OS voice - start having late-night pillow talk sessions and before you can say "compose email" she's his defacto date as he wanders around sunny Los Angeles, which appears to have reached the population of 600 million yet still doesn't seem overcrowded or dirty. A note on this city scape scenes: it's comforting to see future metropolises in a positive light. Maybe we are not doomed to live in a Total Recall underworld after all.

Although Jonze portrays the not-too-distant future as warm, spacious and safe, he paints a grim image of men's fashion as evidenced by Theo's collection of pastel shirts and high-waisted paints.

Just as Theo is getting comfortable with the idea of being in love with a voice in a computer - they're taking weekend getaway trips together and double-dating at Catalina Island - something is happening with Samantha to rupture this seemingly perfect union. The reasons for Samantha's transformation are a little unclear to me, but Theo's struggle with his predicament of losing his ex-wife while grappling with the fact he is emotionally invested in a computer is plain as day. Phoenix is one of the great actors of our age and it's hard to imagine anyone else doing this film the same justice.

Amy Adams, who seems to be making a film every week, plays his longtime platonic friend who's also dealing with a breakup and a burgeoning relationship with her OS. Of course you want them to unplug their computers and start a good ole fashioned human-to-human love affair, but Jonze wouldn't dare consider such conventionality.

Her resonates with what's going on right now in our world and that's something I don't take for granted anymore. Movies now are so often meant for pure escapism and I'm fine with that, but our world is changing so rapidly and I appreciate when a director makes an attempt to examine its transformations. How Her will hold up 10 years from now I couldn't possibly say, but it feels like required viewing in the present day.

A quick note on the music. Jonze started his career making music videos and parts of Her feel like some of his videos from the 90s. If you remember Weezer's "Islands in the Sun" video there's definitely a familiarity with that choice of dreamy lighting. Arcade Fire provides a few tracks and Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs collaborates with Jonze again after writing the score to his film Where the Wild Things Are. Indiewire has posted a few cuts here.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Kurt Russell Floats the Boat

In this post I'd like to discuss two films on Netflix that star Kurt Russell and have a wacky plot that somehow involves a boat. The first is the Gary Marshall-directed 1987 rom-com Overboard co-starring Goldie Hawn, and the other is 1992's sea romp Captain Ron, which co-stars Martin Short.

Both films are mindless fun but if you're in a position where you are forced to choose between two sea-faring comedies starring Kurt Russell, I'm going to suggest Overboard, and here's why:

Falling For It

It's hard to believe this movie was Russell's follow up to the action-packed John Carpenter classic Big Trouble in Little China. After playing rough-and-ready truck driver Jack Burton and being a few years removed from his badass Snake Plissken character in Escape From New York, Russell goes to considerable lengths with Overboard to soften the edges to his tough guy screen persona.

He teams up with his real-life partner Goldie Hawn and gives himself over to director Gary Marshall, who might just be the greatest romantic comedy director of all time. He's responsible for tearjerker favourites Pretty Woman, Beaches and Runaway Bride among others. Not to sound derisive but he has the chick-flick formulas down to a science.

In Overboard, however, Marshall's not too concerned with plot because there are enough holes here to sink this story to the bottom of the cinema sea. Hawn plays an intolerable ice queen who hires Russell, a fun-loving blue-collar carpenter named Dean Proffitt, to build her a new shoe closet on her yacht. As he works, Hawn belittles him while flaunting her wares (ie. flashing her thong) and their early scenes together are a strange mix of anger and eroticism.

Hawn slips overboard in the middle of the night and is picked up by a garbage scow. The only problem: she has amnesia and can remember nothing more than how to be cruel and insulting as she berates doctors, policemen and the local news anchor who tries to interview the "mystery woman."

Russell, a father of four unruly boys with no mother, hatches a scheme to bring Hawn home, convince her she's his wife and essentially make her his domestic slave. Sure, she screwed him over for his unpaid carpentry work, but this plan raises a multitude of ethical questions involving kidnapping, forced servitude and captivity. But this is a 80s movie where the opening credits are backdropped by some funky slap bass music, so you can't take it too seriously.  

Like I said, the plot is weak but star power keeps it afloat. The two leads have palpable chemistry together and Hawn plays the exasperated fish out of water part to perfection the same way she did in Private Benjamin. Russell, despite his questionable decision to trick Hawn and make her a surrogate mother, is likeable as a small town striver trying to raise his kids and make ends meet. You'll be surprised near the end when you're cheering for Russell to realize his dream of building a mini golf course. Ambitions were certainly more modest in 80s movies.    

Captain Bomb

There's plenty wrong with Captain Ron and it's no wonder it fizzled at the box-office. But you can't pin it on Kurt Russell and his titular character. Russell, years before Johnny Depp essentially became his Captain Jack Sparrow persona, is wonderful as a shady Caribbean captain who speaks with a rum-soaked voice and sports an eye patch.

He's basically doing a comedic riff on his Snake Plissken character and having fun with the lightweight nature of the film. He's got all the movies' best lines and it's obvious he's not taking the part too seriously. If it wasn't for Russell's presence this movie would be unwatchable.

It's weird to even write this but here's a case where Martin Short just isn't funny. Short is playing the straight man to Russell's absent-minded stewardship, but it doesn't work. Short - the man who invented this character - should NEVER be the straight man. It doesn't suit him.

Director Thom Eberhardt is not without blame, especially for his unfortunate decision to make child actor Benjamin Salisbury, playing Short's son, ape all of Macaulay Culkin's scared face moves from Home Alone - a monster hit only two years earlier.

Wikipedia describes Captain Ron as having a "cult following" and that in 2007 fans of the film gathered for the first annual "Ron Con" to celebrate the film's 15th anniversary. Yet something tells me this is not going to take on Big Lebowski status anytime soon.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Opening Credits - Again

I started this film blog seven years ago and made exactly three posts during that time period. That's 0.42 posts per year, and sadly all three came within the first month of starting REEL LIFE.

Since then my film viewing habits have changed dramatically, with the advent of Netflix. Sure I can still be found in the dark cinemas, but while I used to peruse video stores with my head cranked sideways reading titles on spines, I now crank my head sideway reading titles as they scroll by on Netflix.

I'm restarting this blog to help readers sift through the streaming crud and get to some of the quality. This won't be exclusive to Netflix; I will also be discussing what's in the theatres and why most mainstream films critics are out to lunch. I know that sounds arrogant, but I find myself disagreeing so often these days that I need a space to vent, if to no one but myself.

So let's get straight into it. Here are two Netflix-available titles that I've watched in recent days:

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

I have endless capacity for music documentaries. I've watched time-wasting garbage like Electric Daisy Carnival Experience to Oscar-winners such as Searching for Sugar Man.

Big Star fits nicely into the popular music doc category of "band-who-never-made-it-but-should-have-and-is-now-being-validated-of-their-greatness." I'm not sure if Anvil started this trend but we can certainly thank them to some degree. Unlike Anvil, Big Star made listenable music in their prime and their influence can be heard all over today's landscape.

Yet Big Star was ignored when they released the sublime "No. 1 Record," and almost as good follow up Radio City. Here's one of my favourite songs from them:

At 113 minutes, the film struggles mostly because the band has so little footage. There are no live performances (a few photo stills), video interviews or music videos. The directors - Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori - do the best they can with some promo photos and a radio interview but they could have shaved off 20 minutes, easy.

The film compensates by delving into the history of the Memphis music scene - Big Star's hometown - and some of its eclectic and colourful personalities during the 70s and 80s. Their voices are in this film but unfortunately Big Star's magnetic leader, Alex Chilton, isn't. Chilton died in 2010 and there's simply, I'll assume, no video out there of him talking about his music or anything else for that matter. Same goes with his Big Star songwriting partner Chris Bell, who died at 27 in 1978.

So what we get is a lot of talking head Big Star fans both unknown and known (REM's Mike Mills leads the latter category) and an unfortunate amount of footage of the band. You can't blame the directors for the lack of footage, but they are the ones trying to make a compelling documentary and could have edited it down to a less bloated length. I don't mind hearing from a few gushing critics, but if you keep going back to them repeatedly it dilutes the impact. And yes, perennial music doc star - Rolling Stone's David Fricke - makes an appearance near the end.

In the end you have a good movie about a great band who had some rough luck. But I would say this is too daunting an introduction to Big Star. Nothing is more of a turnoff to a band than listening to people tell you how great they are for nearly two hours.


I thought there was only one movie called "Heat" out there and that was Michael Mann's sorta-classic starring Al Pacino. That movie contains some of Pacino's most over-the-top cinematic moments, including this scene. Burt Reynolds' Heat is more low-key, but I would argue it's just as moody and dark.

Reynolds plays the fantastically-named Nick Escalante, a gambling addict and soldier of fortune who prowls through Vegas dreaming of one day cashing in his chips and moving to Venice. Like Michael Douglas' Jack T. Colton character in "Romancing the Stone," he often gazes upon a framed photo of a sail boat that will carry him away to a better life.

Escalante runs afoul of a local sleazebag gangster after helping his ex-girlfriend exact revenge on a wormy pervert named Danny DeMarco. As the mobsters turn on the "heat", Nick agrees to help a wimpy millionaire build some confidence by being his bodyguard and teaching him to man-up and take a punch. The two plot-lines collide during an action-packed end sequence where Nick hunts down DeMarco at his velvet-lined, high-roller suite.

It has recently been announced that this "Heat" will be remade starring Jason Statham in the role of Escalante. That's not exactly a casting stretch for Statham, who has made his career playing the reluctant tough guy. But before that comes out I would recommend seeing this original first. Reynolds does some fine acting in this film and he exudes a fatigue with the life he can't seem to escape.

There's a particularly memorable scene where Reynolds, after a winning streak in which he earns enough dough to make his Venice dream a reality, goes back to the blackjack tables knowing full well he will lose it all. His eyes say it all as he asks the dealer for another card. He knows his fate, but can do nothing to stop himself.