Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Strictly Ballroom (1992)

Australian director Baz Lurhmann has built up a reputation as being divisive. His glitzy and showy style appeals to many, but grates on others. It's generally agreed upon though, among both his fans and detractors, that his debut film Strictly Ballroom is a classic no matter how you cut it. So let's dig into Lurhmann's output from 'before he lost his mind'...

Scott Hastings is a young ballroom dancer in training, and all set to win a local dance competition when he suddenly dances his own steps, breaking the strictly regimented rules. Now without a partner, and pressured by everyone to 'dance properly', he is approached by put-upon beginner Fran. Together they train in secret, hoping to dazzle. But can they win the competition when everything is against them? Or will they provide a shining example for anyone else wanting to be different...

Strictly Ballroom is a film that came up through adversity. Beginning life on the stage, industry newcomer Baz was determined to bring it to the silver screen. Unfortunately he lived in Australia, which may have a great film industry in terms of quality, but lacks American money. It was an uphill battle to get the film made, with a studio that wanted to pull the plug many times, and setbacks, big and small. But despite all this, and despite a lack of faith from the higher-ups, the film was eventually released to mass accolades, in and out of the country. It became on of the highest grossing Australian films of all time, and is regarded as one of our all-time greats.

Strictly Ballroom gets off to a quasi-documentary start, introducing us to the setting and characters quickly. We see all the showiness and rigid hierarchy of the dancing community (not to mention the insane outfits!), and how little any kind of freedom is tolerated. It's surprising to discover! I just figured dancers in these communities could do whatever steps they wanted. I had no idea they were so restricted.

The story here is fairly basic, of a young man trying to prove himself, with a Cinderella type story thrown in for good measure. These elements all go great together, and are told in an original way, with plenty of humour, romance, and drama, and a few twists and turns.

The film's antagonists range from actual villains, to people close to Scott who just have blinders on, being told what to do for so long they believe it themselves, and force it on others. Naturally when pressed on what's actually wrong with the steps, all they can do is fall back on the 'Well, you'd have to be an expert to know' argument.

With some movies, they could be made in any country, especially when it comes to a subject like ballroom dancing. To this film's credit though, it is unmistakeably Australian. I love how Aussie the dancers are, from their local vernacular, the coarse language, to their very down-to-earth jobs (like a greasy mechanic discussing the Viennese Waltz).

Scott is a likeable hero. He's been raised in this very constrained way, and has become an expert within those boundaries, but yearns for more, like part of him is missing. The massive pushback he gets from merely questioning things only frustrates him more. It's quiet and 'mousy' Fran who's the one to get him out of his funk and help him for the better. While he's skeptical at first of an amateur wanting to help a professional, we soon discover her hidden talents. Scott's flaw is in conquering his doubts about what everyone will think, and must learn not to live in fear.

Fran starts out shy, but with a fiery Latin streak when things get rough, which helps begin a fruitful working relationship with Scott, which soon grows through a believable romance. It starts out as a one-sided crush, with Scott almost putting his foot in his mouth a couple of times. But it's not too long when it's reciprocated, and Scott finds himself in a dance-off with her Spanish father to earn his approval (and to presumably not get stabbed).

Onto the supporting characters. Scott's parents are of interest. His mother is a hard piece of work, doing everything 'out of love', but comes off pretty toxic, especially in her marriage. Her browbeaten husband is a meek and quiet fella, but always pottering about in the background, doing his own thing. We gradually discover his backstory, and it proves to be a linchpin of the film

Scott's mate and his girlfriend have their little issues here and there, but are a good sort, and the two kids often hanging about are great! Scott's dancing partner starts out as a real drama queen, but changes by the end. Then there's the popular past winner, who'd seem a shoe-in were it not for his badly hidden alcoholism.

The size of the cast is a little confusing at times. There are two young female dancers, and two bitchy old ladies. There are also two middle aged blokes with weird hair! Although they at least become distinct pretty quickly. I also wasn't sure how there's a Grand Prix already. Then what was the contest at the start of the film?

Everything comes together perfectly in the climax, and each character gets their time to shine, before a grand dance-off seals the deal. Naturally the corrupt elite are doing everything in their power to stop Scott and Fran from succeeding, but an unlikely source gives them the perfect boost, even without music to guide them. And we get a dance that still has a great reputation to this day.

The cast here is a talented one. Dancer turned actor Paul Mercutio does very well in ones of his earliest performances, while Tara Morice is impressive. Best of all is how she looks so normal, like any real person, even after her big glow-up. Bill Hunter is a delightfully evil villain, with a distinct appearance. Barry Otto is fairly quiet and in the background for most of the film, but he shines in two particular areas. The first is the stage flashback, with great use of non-verbal acting. And the second is his role in the climax, where he really steps up to become the heart of the film.

The direction here is very good. Lurhmann has a great eye for visuals, and detail, and some shots are superbly framed. The dancing is all filmed well too, which is a must for any movie like this. Baz's unmistakeable visual style goes hand in hand with the editing, wild and fast, but not too crazy. A thought that occurred to me during a particular scene was how much it resembled Stephen Sayadian's style! There's the same deliberate artificiality, stage playing, exaggerated expressions, and pop culture enthusiasm

Music plays an important role in the story, and we have a nice mix of pop culture tracks, traditional ballroom tracks, and a dash of ethnic flavour with some Spanish flamenco tunes. All these combine to make for a great soundtrack. A particular favourite for me was the cover of Time After Time, which is composed in an interesting way! And lastly, there's of course Love is in the Air, the 70s classic that found new life after this film.

Strictly Ballroom was such a success that Baz Lurhmann was given the keys to Hollywood, where he's remained ever since. He may have immediately buggered off to America, but in fairness he has done good things for the Australian industry, like employing local crews, filming here, and came back for an epic so Australian it's literally called Australia! And he's made so few films that a whole third of his filmography is Aussie, even if only by technicality. So I guess I can't get too mad at him.

I'm not really a fan of his later movies, but Strictly Ballroom is a real treat, and definitely worth checking out! It's a new favourite I wish I'd seen sooner. I know, I'm probably a bad Australian! I don't have to eat any vegemite to prove otherwise, do I?...

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Richard the Stork-A Stork's Journey (2017)

After a pair of sparrows are killed, their hatchling is found and adopted by a family of storks. Young Richard grows up unaware of his true heritage, until the time comes that the flock must migrate to Africa. Knowing Richard would never survive the journey, his stern father leaves him behind. But Richard is determined to go to Africa with the others, no matter what. Along the way he encounters new friends to help him, as well as dangerous obstacles. But nothing can stop him from his goal...

Richard the Stork (known as A Stork's Journey in America) is a European animated film. It's a real breath of fresh air. It's by no means an original story, but it's delivered in a fun way. At only 84 minutes, the film is a brisk watch. It starts off quickly, drops us into this world, and introduces it well to its cast.

The story is simple but effective, and we understand exactly how everyone feels. There's heart to it, and genuine emotion.

The film succeeds as a comedy too. It's not a gut-busting classic or anything, but it's consistently amusing, and has some great moments. One of my favourite was the savage honey badger's reaction to Kiki's singing, which is unexpected and kinda adorable!

Something that didn't occur to me right away is the film's resemblance to Finding Nemo. Some people are less generous with their comparisons, but there are definitely a few similarities. There's a happy then crushing prologue with parents being...y'know, a flight across the world, meeting quirky characters who become aware of the journey, and a mentally confused female sidekick. That's where the similarities end though. While the broad strokes might resemble Nemo, there are more than enough differences, big and small, and the movie does stand on its own.

The characters are fairly strong. Richard is a goodhearted lead, with plenty of spunk and determination. My only criticism is that he never seems to come to terms with being a sparrow, and is quite insulting towards them! Giant pygmy owl Olga is a crazy but friendly sidekick, along with her imaginary friend Oleg (who may or may not be real). And Kiki is a self-obsessed budgie with dreams of being a world famous singer. While he may trick the others to get what he wants, he's not without heart, and does soon do the right thing before it's too late.

The storks are a varied bunch. Richard's mother Aurora is compassionate, while father Claudius is a stern figure, not to mention arrogant towards anyone that's not a stork. Richard's adoptive brother Max is immediately accepting, and blames his father for leaving him behind.

The supporting cast are a...hoot. There are mafioso crows (who play a disappointingly small role), and internet obsessed birds, who are simultaneously a help and a hindrance.

The setting is quite neat. Some areas get across a sense of age. Like there was human presence hundreds of years ago, but nature has grown over these old statues. Before you get the impression this is a post apocalyptic film though, there's plenty of modern activity. Bustling cities, WiFi connections, and cruise liners. The film's a little scathing in places, with more than a few of the human characters being grossly obese (in Europe?!), and growing dependency on the internet. Never to such a degree that it's less fun of a setting though.

Another thing I really liked was all the bird trivia. The film's creators must have done their research, because there are lots of little touches, such as storks' adorably weird laugh, owls rotating their heads, and one hilarious scene with a 'scary' scorpion.

The voice cast here does a good job. I saw it in English, not the original German(?). Confusingly there are apparently a couple of English dubs. Not sure which one I watched, but the performers all fit their characters perfectly.

The music here is nice enough. Its biggest highlight is the song We're Coming Home, which I thought was a licensed track, but was created for the film. It's a nice running theme, and even closes the film out. It's a fairly modern sounding song, but is still neat, and has a bit of a classic ring to it.

And lastly there's the visuals. Richard the Stork is your typical 3D animation, and looks good althroughout, never failing to impress. There are a few great visual moments that really stick out. The characters all have their own distinct appearance too, from their bright colours, to sizes, species', etc.

Richard the Stork is a short but charming film, and a more than adequate distraction for kids, as well as good entertainment for the adults too...

Saturday, December 3, 2022

Destroy All Monsters (1968)

In the future of 1999, the Earth is at peace, and all kaiju safely live on Monster Island, away from civilisation. Things take a turn for the worse when the outside world loses contact with the island, and suddenly there are reports of monster attacks all across the globe. Mothra in Beijing, Rodan in Moscow, and Godzilla in New York. It's soon discovered that an evil alien race are behind the attacks, and humanity must fight harder than ever to save the planet...

After disappointing financial returns to previous Godzilla films, Toho decided to put the series on ice for a while. Destroy All Monsters was intended to be the grand finale, pulling out all the stops with as many monsters as they could. But it became such a runaway success that the Showa era continued for another 7 years.

Destroy All Monsters is famous for its sheer spectacle, and grand monster fights. Previous entries usually had two monsters, maybe three or four for a special occasion. But here there's a grand total of nine! Or eleven, since there are a couple who really get shafted, and appear in little more than cameos.

The setting is a great one. Not only are we in the futuristic year of 1999, in a society that has gained world peace, there is also safety from kaju thanks to Monster Island (or Monster Land). The latter is a cool location, and established well (though the security measures were a bit mean! Poor monsters), but quickly discarded when the monsters are brainwashed. And as for the world itself, it's barely focused on, and no different to the usual. There's little about it that's futuristic, but that would actually prove to be depressingly realistic.

Where I had issues with Destroy All Monsters was in its story. I only mind a little that it's basically a retelling of Invasion of Astro Monster, but what I do mind is how basic it all is. The film gets right into the action very quickly, beginning to build up an interesting mystery before immediately throwing all its chips on the table and unleashing the monsters.

The film also struggles with stakes. After a strong intro showing the rampaging kaiju, we then go almost a full half hour with only humans, and it feels like we're watching a random espionage/sci-fi. We're told of the stakes, but never really feel them. The world never feels like it's in any real danger.

The characters are tolerable, but fairly dull. The plot is so breakneck that it never stops to develop them, even superficially. They are so uninteresting that so far this is the only Godzilla film I've seen so far where the story made me check out till the monsters showed up again.

While the Kilaks don't have much personality, certainly not individually, I did like their darkly blunt sense of humour. Their motivations however leave a little to be desired. They want to conquer the earth, just because. No greater reason, nor build-up or intrigue, they just rock up and attack Earth.

The monsters are all reasonably benevolent here, but trashing a few cities under alien mind control. Only Ghidorah is truly villainous, though he too is being brainwashed by the Kilaks, so it feels less personal and satisfying seeing him get a final beatdown than if he were more in control.

With the amount of monster screentime we were getting early on, I did wonder how the movie would sustain this. The answer turned out to be it doesn't. We go long stretches without any monster action, to the point where I began feeling deprived.

Destroy All Monsters really only has one battle, singular. But it sure is a special one! It's one of the best monster fights in the entire series. Although calling it a fight might be misleading. It's more of a one-sided beatdown, as all 10 good kaiju, lead by Godzilla, beat the absolute shit out of Ghidorah, destroying him once and for all. We even have an unseen human acting as a monster wrestling commentator.

While Godzilla does appear in the film, it's a bit hard to consider Destroy All Monsters to be a Godzilla entry. The film is never really about him, though out of all the monsters, he is still the best. His son Minilla appears too, much to my delight! He is the cutest kaiju of them all. He's surprisingly the first to show up for the final battle, and blows an adorable smoke ring as the finishing blow.

Mothra has an alright role, but is only in her larval stage, and never a glorious moth. Manda and Kumonga (a snake and spider, respectively) have decently sized roles. Kumonga is a little redundant in the final battle, spraying web just like Mothra, but a giant spider can never be a drawback.

Gorosaurus, a T-rex who previously appeared in King Kong Escapes, has a brief role, but makes the most of it with a great attack against Ghidorah.Baragon and Varan also appear, for ludicrously short cameos. There are enough monsters in the final product that their presence isn't missed, but talk about false advertising!

The look of the Kilak's is pretty neat, even though we never actually get to see them as aliens, barring a quick flash. They're an all-female group who dress in glittery robes and showercaps. It's a lost art seeing aliens actually dress the part.

The effects here are standout. Many monsters are redesigned, and look really neat, and lifelike. The costumes are cheesy, but fun. And the sets can be gorgeous, particularly the alien lair near the end. The city destruction is surprisingly detailed this time round during the aftermath. The location for the final battle is pretty simple, being a normal valley surrounded by blue sky, but that's part of the charm in the Showa era!

The score by Akira Ifukube is great as always, with a nice mix of old and new, with some thrilling tracks to enjoy.

Destroy All Monsters ranks surprisingly low for me in the Godzilla series. I know, I'm shocked too! But for all the issues I had with it, it's still a 60s kaiju film. Maybe not the best as far as I was concerned, but still worth checking out. And for many it is one of the best. And even the worst Godzilla film is at least worth something (unless it's two and a half hours long, anyway)...

Friday, December 2, 2022

My Father's Violin (2022)

Ali Riza and his 8 year old daughter Özlem live a simple existence, making their way through illegal street performing. Often on the run from police, they enjoy life in spite of difficulty, until the day Ali gets a terminal diagnosis. His appeal to his estranged brother Mehmet falls on deaf ears, but after he dies, the professional virtuoso is saddled with the kid anyway. He is cold at first, until his attitude causes girlfriend Suna to storm off, leaving him alone with his new niece. Slowly the two grow closer, and she might be the key in helping him make peace with the past...

My Father's Violin is a family drama from Turkey, with a musical touch. It's pretty well-worn territory, and this is nothing you haven't seen before, but it's delivered in a competent and enjoyable way, enough to make it a worthwhile viewing experience.

The story is cliched, but well written all the same. There's a good mix of drama, comedy, and day-to-day life in here. One area the film perhaps doesn't explore as much as it could have is the fallout of the father's death. After the obligatory 5 minute mourning, Özlem doesn't seem that broken up about it. I wouldn't say the film ever forgets or ignores this, it's just got its hands full developing the relationship with her uncle. This is the crux of the film, and is handled in a fairly believable way.

Özlem is an adorable girl, and talented. Her gifts never come at the cost of her childhood though. She still acts believably childlike, and never fake like she's a 30 year old in a kid's body. One of her best moments is a mix of the two, when a street 'beggar' steals her money, and she fights back.

Mehmet starts out almost quite callous, and doesn't want much to do with Özlem. His love life needs work too, and he says some really out of line things, resulting in him having to take care of the kid alone. Their relationship gradually comes together, with small conversations and moments going a long way, before more dramatic events bring them even closer.

Mehmet's girlfriend Suna is a more positive and friendly character, getting along immediately with Özlem. She's out of the movie fairly quickly though, after some harsh comments from Mehmet send her packing. This is a shame for the girl's sake, but it works in the same way as it does in Annie. She might get along better with Miss Farrell, but if she didn't get time alone with him, the relationship with the frosty Daddy Warbucks couldn't grow. Suna's back for the final act, in a nice enough reunion.

As always in these kinds of films, social services are invariably the bad guys, ready to swoop in and take the child away to a cruel orphanage. My Father's Violin doesn't go overboard with this, but it's still present.

The ending is a little abrupt, and doesn't really resolve the custody issue, but it doesn't really need to either. We get an upbeat and rousing end, and we can just assume everything turned out ok.

My only real complaint with My Father's Violin is the overlong runtime. 2 hours is just a bit excessive, and the story could've been told in less time. The film's at least never boring, but a little snipping here and there could have tightened it up.

The soundtrack here is very good, which is a must for any movie that focuses on music as much as this. We have a standard score, which is pretty decent, then we have assorted violin compositions playing throughout. Many are classic tunes, fitting scenes well and giving some oomph.

The acting is good all round. Engin Altan Düzyatan does well, starting out distant, before becoming more emotional as the movie goes on. Meanwhile, Selim Erdoğan is like a sad Michael Sheen. Belçim Bilgin is nice as Suna. And lastly, there's the film's true lead, and heart-Gülizar Nisa Uray. She gives a very good performance for her age, and manages to be cute but not cloying, and delivers funny and dramatic moments very well, especially for a young newcomer.

The film is in Turkish, but Mehmet does business with a German composer, so naturally they communicate together in English. His scenes kept throwing me through a loop, because Mehmet abruptly switches between languages. Now granted, I do have a slight understanding of English, but man it's still trippy to have your mind switched/attuned to another language, then suddenly they begin speaking your own! As for how well they actually act in English, it's fairly decent, if a bit adorable. 

Lastly, the direction is quite good. Turkey is shown off well, as always (I imagine a gulag awaits for the local directors who make the country look bad, if it were possible!). Dramatic scenes are framed very well too. And the music hall sequences are grandiose.

My Father's Violin is fairly predictable, and won't change the game, but it does everything it needs to, and is worth watching if you like this sort of thing...