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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

By October 12, 2011November 15th, 2011No Comments

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.