Movie Review: Animal Kingdom (2010)

May 31, 2010 in Movie Reviews by pacejmiller

Animal Kingdom opens around Australia on 3 June 2010

People like me are what’s wrong with the Australian film industry.  My initial reaction to Aussie films is always one of scepticism and prejudice.  If it’s Australian, then chances are, it’s crap.  I’m sure I am not alone in holding this kind of biased sentiment against locally produced films.  Is it because of the poor track record?  Is it because they try too hard to make something edgy?  Or is it because we’re so used to the big bucks spent on Hollywood movies that we look down upon the locals who make their films on, relatively speaking, shoestring budgets?

I don’t know what it is, but what I do know is that Animal Kingdom, the Australian film written and directed by David Michod, is the real deal.  The film may have won the World Cinema dramatic Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, but it wasn’t until I watched it at a screening last week that it stripped away my prejudice against it and most Australian films in general.

Animal Kingdom is an explosive crime drama set in Melbourne suburbia.  The story is told through the eyes of 17-year-old Josh ‘J’ Cody (James Frecheville), who is thrust into the world of crime when he is forced to go live with his grandmother ‘Smurf’ (Jacki Weaver) and his three uncles — Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and Darren (Luke Ford).  They are a family of relatively small-time armed robbers and drug-traffickers, but their time is coming to an end thanks to a gang of renegade detectives who are taking the law into their own hands.  As J finds himself sinking deeper and deeper into their world, Animal Kingdom becomes a frightening tale of survival, as J is torn between his girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright), self-preservation and loyalties to his family.

If there is one word I could use to describe Animal Kingdom, it would be “riveting”.  Even though it is classified as a “crime drama”, the majority of the tension (and man, there is edge-of-your-seat tension throughout the entire film) stems from the relationships and power struggles between members of the Cody family.

Debut director Michod has created an incredibly intense world that is terrifying, claustrophobic and deeply personal.  When you are a 17-year-old and this is the only life you’ve ever known, where do you go?  Who do you turn to for help?

Animal Kingdom is a film that twists and turns, and although there is a certain feeling of inevitability, you never quite know exactly what is going to happen next.  What struck me as particularly brilliant was how well each of the characters were drawn out.  With the exception of perhaps Pope’s best friend Barry Brown (Joel Edgerton) and senior cop Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce), every key character in this film is multi-dimensional and never turn out to be as they first appear.  They each have such strong personalities and traits that their interactions are always bound to produce fireworks and/or make you feel unsettled.

I used to have this idea that all the ‘good’ Australian actors end up overseas, but the performances in Animal Kingdom blew me away.  First-timer James Frecheville gives a wonderfully controlled performance as the protagonist J — a subdued man-child who prefers to be unseen but is forced to come out of his shell as matters spiral out of control.  While Stapleton and Ford both give solid performances, the standouts have to be Ben Mendelsohn’s Pope and Jacki Weaver’s Smurf, the two menacing and psychotic heads of the family.

Animal Kingdom should not be mistaken for an action-thriller.  I wouldn’t describe the pace as slow, but at 112 minutes it does feel like a long movie, especially towards the end when it took a while to come to the final resolution.

All I can say is go see it, not because we should support the Australian film industry but because it is genuinely a terrific film.  I do hope it does well at the box office, especially amongst locals.  It is by far the best Australian film I’ve seen since the 2001 Lantana.

4.5 stars out of 5!

Del Toro quits ‘The Hobbit’; now what?

May 31, 2010 in Entertainment, Fantasy by pacejmiller

Guillermo del Toro, man at the helm of films such as Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, The Devil’s Backbone and Blade II, has quit as director of The Hobbit, the planned two-part prequel to The Lord of the Rings.

Whilst calling it “the hardest decision” of his life, Del Toro simply couldn’t take the extended and continued delays in filming any longer as it impacted on his other commitments.  The Hobbit was supposed to be a 3 year commitment but it’s now looking like it will be 6 years or more.  Most of the delays stem from the financial struggles of studio MGM, which is co-distributing the film with New Line.

I was initially disappointed when I heard that Peter Jackson was not going to be directing The Hobbit films.  He had done such a fantastic job on LOTR that we all expected him to return to continue the legacy.  However, when I found out that Del Toro was taking over, it made me even more excited.  Del Toro’s incredible vision and creepy style has impressed me more than any other director in recent memory, and I thought his presence would shift the franchise in a fresh and exciting direction and turn Middle-Earth into an even stranger and unsettling place.

But with Del Toro gone, now what?  Is The Hobbit destined to suck, or will it simply never be made at all?

Jackson has reiterated that he will not be directing the films, even though he will continue to work on the script and try and facilitate a smooth transition to a new director.

I just don’t know who they can get with such short notice and the films being such a major commitment.  I’m sure plenty of lesser known and less capable directors will be lining up to prove their mettle, but if they pick someone bland and unoriginal who isn’t going to do the films justice, it will just be a complete waste of everybody’s time.  LOTR has built up such an incredible level of expectation that The Hobbit simply can’t be anything but amazing.

Why the heck is Apple so popular?

May 28, 2010 in Best Of, Social/Political Commentary, Technology by pacejmiller

The Apple iPad was launched in Australia today

[Update: After reading the Steve Jobs biography, I think I now know why the heck Apple is so popular.  Check out what I have to say about that here.]

Today marked the official launch of Apple’s new iPad in Australia.

As with just about anything released by Apple these days, people camped outside all night in the cold and rain just so they could be among the first in the country to purchase one of these babies.  The frenzy was slightly more subdued than when Apple released the iPhone, but it was still a very solid crowd.

Most admitted they didn’t know a whole lot about the product, which has been shrouded in Apple’s trademark mystery for many months.  Some others even said that they didn’t even know if they wanted one, but they just wanted to get it for the sake of it.

Seriously, what is going on here?  It’s not like Apple is giving away these things for free.  Apparently, an iPad ranges from AU$629 (for a 16GB Wi-Fi model) to AU$1049 (for a 64GB 3G + Wi-Fi model).  And there’s nothing astroundingly revolutionary about it either.  Both tablet computers and touch screens have been around for years.  Further, critics have pointed out the lack of an in-built camera and USB port.  The reviews have been varied, but the general consensus is that the iPad is essentially a bigger version of the iPhone.

Nevertheless, the iPad has once again become the latest “must have” product from the Apple.  It seems whenever Apple releases anything, no matter what it is and regardless of the merits of the product, it is always guaranteed to sell and sell big.  The iPad has been selling extraordinarily well around the world and in Australia, pre-sale orders have been mind-boggling.  There is even expected to be a shortage in stock for the first few weeks at least.

How has Apple managed to do this?  Are their products really that innovative and far ahead of the rest of the pack?  Or is it the clever marketing campaigns designed to make Apple products look ‘cool’?  Or is it a combination of these and many other factors?  Whatever it is, Apple has somehow made the iPod, iPhone and shortly almost certainly the iPad, the most ubiquitous personal devices in the developed world — possibly ever.

The iPhone

I still remember a time, many years ago, when the Apple brand almost had the opposite effect on people.  Everyone had PCs and Macs were considered ‘pretty’ computers for unsophisticated users.  Then, something happened.  I started seeing those ‘silhouette man’ iPod commercials on TV and on the side of buses.  Then there were those ads with Justin Long.  Before long, iPods were everywhere.  Everyone in the city had an iPhone.  Getting iMacs and MacBooks suddenly became the ‘in’ thing to do.  Now when I go to a cafe, most people I see have iMacs.  The lecturers in my writing course (and most students, might I add) all have MacBooks and one even said to us, “I’m a writer, of course I use a Mac!”

I don’t believe promotion alone can elevate a brand to where Apple is now.  There has to be merit in their products.  But what I don’t get is why Apple has become such a crazy phenomenon world-wide.  It’s not like competitors have not come out with similar products which either have stronger specs and/or have cheaper prices.  But none have been able to make any significant dent in Apple’s market share.  It’s almost as though consumers are hypnotised by the stylish exterior of Apple’s devices and have shut their minds to alternative products.  Can you think of another electronic device brand (or any brand, for that matter) that would have people lining up outside for 24 hours or more, just so they could be one of the first people to buy a new product?

I only have two Apple products — an 80GB Video iPod and an 8GB iPod Touch — both gifts from a former employer.  Everyone in the workplace got one, which just shows how popular — or at least how popular my employer thought — these products had become.

I don’t have anything against Apple or their products, other than the annoying fact that everything has to be synched to the extremely frustrating iTunes.  That alone was enough to make me look for cheaper and more user-friendly alternatives.

There have been numerous articles that touch on the Apple ‘phenomenon’ (I do have some reservations with this term because Apple is apparently bringing out a next gen compositing application by that name), but I haven’t found any serious pieces that have provided a comprehensive examination into just what it is that makes Apple products so popular.  I’m sure someone, somewhere, has written a thesis or dissertation on this topic — if you know where to find such a thing, please feel free to point me in the right direction.

DVD Review: The Princess and the Frog (2009)

May 28, 2010 in Movie Reviews by pacejmiller

Disney’s latest animation feature, The Princess and the Frog, will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on 16 June 2010.  Running time: 94 minutes. Rated: G

In the age of computer animations and 3D special effects, it’s always good to see a traditional hand-drawn story that is just as beautiful to the eye — but with that extra bit of fluidity and a human touch.  That’s exactly what Disney has delivered with Oscar-nominated The Princess and the Frog, a true family film that brought back the nostalgic feelings of those classic animated features from my childhood.

I must admit, The Princess and the Frog was not a film that immediately jumped out at me at during its theatrical run.  The original Grimm brothers’ fairytale about a princess who turns a frog into a prince never really appealed to me personally, and I thought the film would just be a simple retelling of that story.

However, full credit must go to John Musker and Ron Clements (creators of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin).  Instead of going down the expected route, The Princess and the Frog turns the original fairytale on its head, and the result is both surprising and hilarious.

The obvious thing that sticks out about this film is that Disney finally has a black female lead in Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose from Dreamgirls), a hardworking waitress who dreams of opening up her own restaurant.  But there’s a lot more than that.  Rather than some magical alternative world, The Princess and the Frog is set in French Quarter of New Orleans.  This backdrop gives the film an entirely new dimension, bringing back that fun-filled era of jazz music, big bands and old-school dancing never before seen in Disney animated features.

Young Tiana’s world is turned upside down when Prince Naveen (voiced by Bruno Campos from Nip/Tuck) arrives for a royal visit.  Of course, there is a mysterious villain, and without giving away too much of the plot, spells and frogs become involved and the setting is transformed from New Orleans to the mystical bayous of Louisiana, where more interesting characters are introduced, including a musical alligator and a lovesick firefly.

As I understand it, The Princess and the Frog endured a lot of controversies and changes over title, the lead characters, the location and the villain — but seriously, as always, it was much ado about nothing.  In the end, it’s just pure family fun without a suggestion of political messages or racial or cultural insensitivity.

I haven’t been a big fan of animations for a while (with a few notable exceptions), but I really enjoyed The Princess and the Frog.  It is indeed a film intended for the whole family but the target is still clearly young children, despite a couple of “frightening” scenes involving voodoo and the “other side”.  The humour is very much geared towards the kids, though from about the halfway mark I found myself laughing way more than I should have been.

I don’t usually consider myself a jazz listener, but the score for this film was exceptional — lively and fun while remaining true to the Disney spirit.  But perhaps my favourite thing about The Princess and the Frog was the character of Prince Naveen.  For once, the male lead is not just some wealthy, handsome and unbelievably perfect guy who comes in to sweep the heroine off her feet.  Naveen is really a bit of a douche, and I was almost disappointed to find that he actually had some redeeming qualities by the end of the film.

3.5 stars out of 5!

Descriptions in Writing: Love it or Hate it?

May 27, 2010 in Novel, On Writing, Study by pacejmiller

One thing I usually try and avoid as a reader and writer is description — character appearance and especially location.  As a reader, whenever I see a long slab of description that meticulously describes every detail of a piece of clothing or a room, I tend to scan over it or skip it completely.  As a writer, I struggle with descriptions.  I seldom know how detailed I should be, and I almost always have difficulty in choosing the right descriptors.

Having said that, you can’t exactly avoid it.  You can choose to be detailed in order to give a clearer picture, or you can choose to be sparse to allow the narrative to flow and make readers use their imagination.  Or you can be somewhere in between.  So where does the balance lie?

So is detailed description good or bad?  Why is it that I have enjoyed books at both ends of the scale?

Recently I’ve realised that I’ve been going about it the wrong way.  I was thinking about description for the sake of description.  When I wrote a scene, I would go: “Oh, I better add some descriptions in there because that’s what I’m probably supposed to do.”

As a result, I produced long, boring and unoriginal descriptions that I would be the first to skip if I came across it.  It’s something I’ve been noticing in a lot of what I consider to be ‘poor’ writing.  Okay, so we know what this person’s hair and eye colour is and what clothes they are wearing and what their room looks like — but so what?  What does that do for me as a reader?

Today in class, we workshopped a brilliant piece of writing from one of the other students.  It was fantastic because it managed to create incredibly vivid images in my mind by using just a few, but absolutely spot on details here and there to describe character and location.  It made me envious how she could pick and choose a couple of small things about a character that would give me a great idea of what they looked like and gave me clues as to their personality.

So it’s not about the amount of description — it’s choosing the most appropriate description for whatever you are describing.  It doesn’t matter if it is long or short provided it evokes the images you intend.  It’s not about how a character looks on the outside — it’s what message the appearance sends to the reader that is relevant.  It’s not about how a location looks — it’s the atmosphere the location creates and its connection to the characters that’s important.

Nevertheless, it’s easier said than done.  Some people seem to have a knack for description and I’m not one of them.  If you’re like me then I would advise putting down some basic words that reflect the images you want to convey and then come back to them during rewrites so you won’t be stuck on them forever.