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Review: Spy Kids 4D, The Smurfs, Johnny English Reborn, Real Steel, Footloose, The Orator, Norwegian Wood and the 2011 Italian Film Festival

While thousands of protestors gather in Manhattan to “Occupy Wall St”, the European economy teeters on the brink of collapse, unemployment across the developed world grows and several Pacific island nations report shortages of drinking water due to climate change, here in New Zealand we continue to party like it’s 1987 and at the pictures for the school holidays we have the most blatant and desperate examples of corporatist “entertainment” I’ve ever seen lined up together. Is this the cinema equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns?

In The Smurfs the mega-sized Sony corporation makes sure that its name and products are never very far from the centre of the screen, rendering the lumpy end product utterly charmless. In Real Steel the product placement is more like product bombardment. Nothing goes without a logo – from Hugh Jackman’s sunglasses to HP (or are they still known as Hewlett-Packard?) spending thousands of dollars to promote products they don’t even make anymore. Meanwhile, the spies in Spy Kids 4 all use Apple products – although for the most part they are pretending to be something other than computers and iPads.

Johnny English Reborn even goes so far as to make a joke out of its dependency on the rapidly declining corporate dollar – English’s beloved MI7 has changed it’s name to Toshiba MI7 while he was on an enforced sabbatical. Whether the presence of a sensuously photographed (and glowingly described) Rolls Royce will prompt the average audience member to trade in their fifteen-year-old Mazdas is neither here nor there. The fact remains that if you send your kids to the pictures this holidays they will be indoctrinated more than any generation before them.

Spy Kids 4 posterBut are the films any good? Actually, yes, a couple of them are OK. I’m a big fan of Robert Rodriguez and his ability to alternately churn out grown-up pulp like Machete and family-friendly fare like Shorts. His Troublemaker Studios in Austin knows how to make things look good (enough) on modest budgets and Rodriguez’ relentlessly inventive imagination keeps everything lively and fun. I thought Spy Kids 4 was endearing and it managed to deliver a good message along with the thrills and spills.

The Smurfs posterThe Smurfs has some disconcertingly meta moments – the little blue beggars looking themselves up on Google for example – but the film itself failed to keep the young audience I was with entirely occupied. The most successful bits involved the 100%-committed mugging of Hank Azaria as evil wizard Gargamel. There are some inspired set-pieces in Johnny English Reborn, particularly early on, but the film loses its way pretty quickly. Atkinson fans will be pleased to see him back on the big screen however – the rest of you can wait for it show up on TV or the back of the aeroplane seat in front of you.

Real Steel posterReal Steel works its buns off making sure you know exactly what you should be feeling and thinking at every conceivable moment – the direction, the music cues, the dialogue. There’s no room left for an audience. It’s Rocky with robots and not for one second has anyone stopped to think about what an dumb idea that is – or how illogical the execution.

Footloose posterThe entirely unnecessary remake of Footloose is as musically contrived as the other films this week are commercially contrived. In the 25 years since the original, pop music in the US has become much more country-fied (Garth Brooks was the biggest selling act of the 90s) so the focus groups have decreed that there’ll be plenty of line dancing and country-inflected versions of the original hit songs. The only reason that Footloose works at all is the presence of Dennis Quaid as the redneck town’s spiritual enforcer. He’s great. The rest? Not so much.

The Orator posterNow that I’ve taken out the trash (Spy Kids notwithstanding), I’ve got some room to left to commend to you The Orator, one of the best and most satisfying films you’ll see this year. This redemption story of a troubled young man (Faafiaula Sagote) struggling to find his voice, and fighting for his place in his community, quietly sneaks up on you and builds to a very powerful and moving conclusion. The film also cleverly manages to criticise Samoan culture at the same time as celebrating it – a culture that can deal with disputes by formal public speechmaking or by rocks and machetes but not much in between. For New Zealand audiences: not to be missed. For international audiences: not to be missed.

Norwegian Wood posterWhen I saw that Anh Hung Tran’s adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s acclaimed novel Norwegian Wood was getting a local release I thought I’d better read the book in preparation – a colossal tactical mistake as it turned out. Now I can only view the film through the lens of the brilliant and subtle book and I can’t make the film stand on its own two feet – and seeing as most of you won’t have read the book this review won’t be much use to you.

Watanabe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama) is a solitary student in 1969 Tokyo, escaping his small home town after the suicide of his best friend. He falls for his best friend’s troubled girlfr- I can’t summarise this plot. There’s too much of it for this review and the film’s major fault is that it tries to put it all in, rendering most of the incidents less meaningful as a result. Gorgeous to look at throughout though, to be sure.

At the media launch for this year’s Italian Film Festival, the major domo Cav. Tony Lambert told us that it was bigger than all the other “cultural” film festivals combined which shouldn’t be a surprise as it has been extremely consistent over the years that he has been in charge.

But after watching three of the films in this year’s programme I can’t help wondering whether that consistency risks a lack of variety. Both Weddings and Other Disasters and Ten Winters are traditional and fairly forgettable romances (with some comedy thrown in). Nanni Moretti’s Habemus Papam, however, is a pure delight – one of my top five films of the year so far. An ageing cardinal (Michel Piccoli) unexpectedly finds himself elected Pope – and doesn’t want the job. It’s lovely, humane, funny, sad – I hope you can find more like this in Lambert’s generous 19 film line-up.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 12 October, 2011.

Dan

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