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Book Review: He Died with a Felafel in His Hand April 9, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Book Reviews, Reviews.
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My supervisor recommended a number of books to read to get myself into the mood and rhythm of the type of book I wanted to write, and one of them was John Birmingham’s He Died with a Felafel in His Hand.

The title of the book was something I was very familiar with, but to be honest I didn’t even know it was a book.  I had heard about it years ago as a film, a typically [insert adjective] Aussie film starring Noah Taylor.  To be fair, I never watched it, and don’t intend to.

So naturally, I was not convinced that the book would be a good read.  I was wrong. He Died with a Felafel in His Hand is a cracker of a book and John Birmingham is a ridiculously good writer.

The title (and the first line) of the book is a reference to one of the many housemates Birmingham lived with in share house accommodation during the 90s.  The whole book (and it’s a short one — my typo-riddled library-borrowed version was 214 pages) is filled with outrageous and hilarious vignettes about all the crazy housemates Birmingham encountered and the type of things they got up to, usually involving horrific hygiene, a plethora of drugs and bizarre, freaakish, unexplainable human behaviour.  All laugh out loud stuff.

It’s a very easy book to read because there is no real structure — there are chapters but he just goes from one housemate to another, from one house to another.  You do kind of get lost in all of it but it doesn’t really matter because all the stories are so well-written and funny.  There are also little side-stories told by his friends that are equally insane and disgusting, though it took me a while to realise that they were not Birmingham’s personal stories.

Birmingham’s voice and his style is right on the money.  It’s conversational, observational, extraordinarily sharp and witty.  It’s not overtly descriptive but each description manages to hit the bullseye in just a few words.  Definitely someone I can learn from.

I really enjoyed He Died with a Felafel in His Hand and will most probably read it again.

5 out of 5

[PS: I can totally understand, however, why a movie version would have flopped because it could not have been very faithful to a book like this where everything is all over the place and there is no real narrative thread.]

Next Year’s Best Picture Oscar Frontrunner March 9, 2011

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Trailer courtesy of Jimmy Kimmel Live.

I would so pay to see this film.

Movie Review: The Other Guys (2010) September 20, 2010

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I would say Will Ferrell‘s unique brand of humour is a combination of randomness, awkwardness and absolute stupidity.  When it works (and it sometimes does), it really works.  But when it doesn’t, it’s just tedious and unfunny.

In my opinion, The Other Guys is both the best and worst of Will Ferrell.  There are times when the film is genuinely hilarious, reminiscent of Ferrell at his best (think Anchorman), but when the jokes fall flat, there’s just no nice way to say it — it sucked.  Thankfully, I think the good outweighed the bad in this one by a not insignificant margin.  And that makes The Other Guys one of Will Ferrell’s better films.

The Other Guys is a buddy/cop comedy, what you could probably call a ‘spoof’.  Will Ferrell plays Allen Gamble, a ‘forensic accountant’ in the police department.  His partner is Terry Holtz (Mark Wahlberg) a highly capable detective who is stuck with Gamble due to an unfortunate incident 7 years ago that made him lose all credibility (it’s a ripper).  Together, they are the ‘other guys’ to the supercops in the department, played by Samuel L Jackson and Dwayne Johnson (ie the Rock).

Rounding out the impressive cast are Michael Keaton, Eva Mendes and Steve Coogan, and there are a number of cool cameos thrown in too.

Ferrell, as expected, was perfect for the role of the socially retarded Allen Gamble, but Mark Wahlberg was surprisingly good as his straight-faced partner.  Though they have personalities at opposite ends of the scale, the two characters have an authentic chemistry that provides plenty of laughs.

As usual, the trailers revealed way too many of the best jokes in the film — and the one thing with Will Ferrell’s comedy is that it’s never as good the second time around.  That said, there were still a number of random and bizarre but comically successful scenes that will no doubt please Ferrell fans.  As a bonus, the action sequences were quite decent too.  Unfortunately, as is often the case, many jokes (including some of the best ones) were milked way too far.  Let it go!  At times it was like beating a dead horse.  It was the most frustrating thing with an otherwise fairly good comedy.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Boy (2010) August 19, 2010

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In the end, the choice between free screenings to Boy and The Girl Who Played with Fire was made for me.  It took me so long to post my homework (from my writing course) that by the time I was done, the only feasible option was Boy (which was playing at a closer venue).

So how was the highest grossing New Zealand film of all-time?  Surely all those Kiwis can’t be wrong, right?

Well, in my humble opinion, Boy is not as mind-blowing as some might expect, but for a low budget New Zealand comedy-drama by a second-time writer-director (Taika Waititi, who was nominated for an Oscar for his 2003 short film, Two Cars, One Night), it’s about as good as it could have been.  Boy is fresh, original, imaginative, quirky, funny, and ultimately poignant without being manipulative.  And that’s extremely rare for a film these days.

Set in 1984 rural New Zealand, affable eleven-year-old “Boy” (James Rolleston) lives on a farm with his grandmother, his little brother Rocky, a goat, and a bunch of little cousins.  When Boy’s gran leaves town to attend a funeral, Boy is left in charge of the family, but his life is turned upside down when his father (Taika Waititi), Boy’s biggest hero apart from Michael Jackson, returns from prison.

That may sound like a somewhat grim tale, but Boy is a coming-of-age film full of life and laughs.  There are some subtle stabs the problematic indigenous culture in New Zealand, but for the most part, Boy has a lighthearted tone that at times borders on farcical.  The jokes, which start off fast and furious, are predominantly verbal gaffs and slapstick gags related to the imagination/innocence/stupidity of the characters.  As such, they do get a bit stale after a while, but to Waititi’s credit, he skillfully shifts the film’s tone towards drama in the second half, and by the end you may find yourself strangely moved.

One of the main reasons Boy works so well is young James Rolleston, a first-timer who has turned out to be a remarkable revelation.  He carries the film from start to finish without a bit of self-consciousness.  He makes Boy a real and immensely likable kid who just wants to be loved and connect with his father.  Based on this performance and his looks alone, Rolleston appears destined for stardom.

Having talked the film up so much, I should remind readers to keep their expectations in check.  There are some slower moments and not every scene is captivating.  A few of the gags don’t necessarily work.  But Boy should be enjoyed for what it is — a simple and unambitious film (by Hollywood standards) focused on characters and relationships.  It’s a different type of experience to your brainless Hollywood blockbusters (many would say thankfully).  It’s also completely different to those heavy dramas that drain you emotionally or those crazy comedies that bust your gut.  It’s just 88 minutes of exceptionally well-made light entertainment.

3.5 stars out of 5

[This might be a strange comparison, but in some ways Boy reminds me of the highest grossing Taiwanese film of all time, Cape No. 7 (2006) — both small, simple comedy-dramas that struck a chord with the locals and ended up exceeding all box-office expectations.]

Movie Review: Date Night (2010) July 19, 2010

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I like both Steve Carrell and Tina Fey.  More correctly, I admire their talents, but I wouldn’t call myself a huge fan of either comedian.

That’s kind of the way I felt with their collaborative effort, Date Night.  It’s pretty good and I liked the jokes, but it’s not a film I’d really want to see again.  There was nothing wrong with it, but for some reason I just don’t like it as much as I thought I would.

Date Night is directed by Shawn Levy, who was at the helm of one my most hated movies of all time, Just Married, though he did do better with Night at the Museum.

It tells the story of the Fosters, a married couple (Carrell and Fey) with two kids who find their lives becoming too routine, predictable and boring.  But then, on a night out in an attempt to spice up their old romance, the couple become the victims of mistaken identity, which then spirals into a wild and ridiculous ride with hilarious consequences.

It’s one of those films with a decent premise that is more revealing about human nature and real life than we would like to think (with all the stuff about married couples becoming “roommates” over time), but at the same time so many of the jokes are just so outrageous and insane that it’s impossible to take the film seriously.  I won’t ruin the jokes by hinting at what they are, but there were more than a few sequences when I laughed hard and loud.

Date Night’s biggest strength is the comedic pairing of Carrell and Fey, who are both experienced and charismatic performers with the ability to improvise.  As evident from the credits scenes, these two ad-libbed a lot of their lines and a lot of them were probably better than the scripted dialogue.

The second biggest strength of Date Night is the awesome supporting cast.  I absolutely loved all the names in there, from James Franco and Mila Kunis to Leighton Meester, Mark Ruffalo, Ray Liotta, William Fichtner, JB Smoove, and of course Marky Mark Wahlberg.  Each added a different comedic element to the film and elevated the film several levels above what Carrell and Fey would have been able to do on their own.

Having said all of that, I don’t think Date Night will go down as a particularly memorable film in the annals of comedy cinema.  It is very funny at times, but there’s nothing about it that stands out as especially outstanding.  Maybe it’s because I simply don’t like Carrell and Fey enough, and I don’t know why.

3.5 stars out of 5

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