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Conflict of Interest

Review: Slumdog Millionaire, Role Models and The Map Reader

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

I don’t have much room this week and I want to spend most of it gush­ing over Slumdog Millionaire so let’s get started.

Role Models posterBack in 2003, when the Incredibly Strange Film Festival was still its own bump­tious stand-alone anarch­ic self, we opened the Festival with the sum­mer camp spoof Wet Hot American Summer and good­ness me, wasn’t that a time? Written and dir­ec­ted by David Wain, WHAS was a pitch-perfect trib­ute to teen com­ed­ies of the 80s and his new film Role Models attempts to ride the cur­rent wave of sexu­ally frank grown-up com­ed­ies but he doesn’t seem to really have the heart for it. The gross-out bits are uncom­fort­ably gross, the boobies seem like after­thoughts and the film really doesn’t hit its straps until it starts cheer­ing for the under­dog late in the day.

Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott play sales­man ped­dling energy drink to high school kids. After an unfor­tu­nate (sta­tion­ary) road rage incid­ent their jail time is con­ver­ted to com­munity ser­vice at Sturdy Wings – a ‘big broth­er’ out­fit match­ing mis­fit kids up with respons­ible male adults. This kind of mater­i­al has proved out­stand­ingly pop­u­lar recently when pro­duced by Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and I can’t help think­ing that if he had got­ten his hands on Role Models it would have about 20% more jokes in 16% short­er run­ning time – he really is that much of a machine.

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Review: Gran Torino, Beauty in Trouble, Revolutionary Road, Bride Wars, Hotel for Dogs, Bustin’ Down the Door, Female Agents and Man on Wire

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

Gran Torino posterClint Eastwood has been on our screens for over 50 years and at 78 years old he has decided to call it a day and his vale­dict­ory per­form­ance in Gran Torino is com­pletely worthy of the man. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a work­ing class wid­ower liv­ing on a sub­urb­an Detroit street, one of the few ori­gin­al res­id­ents still around as the neigh­bour­hood fills up with Hmong immig­rants. In a gang ini­ti­ation his teen­age neigh­bour Thao tries to steal Walt’s beloved 1972 Gran Torino (a car he helped build on the Ford assembly line) and, as pen­ance, the kid is forced to work for Walt over the sum­mer. They get to know each oth­er – and the threat from the Hmong gang-bangers who now have an axe to grind with Walt as well as Thao and his family.

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Review: Show of Hands, Ghost Town, Be Kind Rewind, Mirrors, How to lose Friends & Alienate People, RocknRolla and And When Did You Last See Your Father?

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

Show of Hands posterAccording to the ven­er­able IMDb.com, before Show of Hands the only fea­ture films to be shot in New Plymouth were The Last Samurai (sort of) and some­thing called Mad Mission 4: You Never Die Twice, so Anthony McCarten’s gentle little comedy-drama is already historic.

Showcasing the Taranaki land­scape as well as the people, Show of Hands has an ambi­tion as small as the town but, sadly, doesn’t bear up under too much scru­tiny. A strug­gling car yard own­er (Steven Stephen Lovatt) runs a hands-on-the-car pro­mo­tion as a last ditch attempt to save his busi­ness and a hand­ily rep­res­ent­at­ive cross-section of New Zealand soci­ety turns out to have a go.

The three main con­tenders are Melanie Lynskey’s single-mum (who needs the car to ferry her wheelchair-bound daugh­ter about); Matt Whelan’s young trusta­far­i­an and Craig Hall’s cold-fish busi­ness­man who may or may not need the dough to solve his busi­ness prob­lems or may or may not just be an ultra-competitive egot­ist­ic­al jerk. The whole film suf­fers from a sim­il­ar lack of clar­ity which makes sus­pend­ing dis­be­lief a struggle. The act­ing is fine how­ever and Whelan in par­tic­u­lar is excel­lent – one for the future there.

Ghost Town posterCursed with a not-very-promising title, and a high concept premise (obnox­ious dent­ist dies for sev­en minutes on an oper­at­ing table and wakes up with the abil­ity to see the ghosts of Manhattan), David Koepp’s Ghost Town turns out to be one of the main­stream pleas­ures of the year. I’m going to assume that every Hollywood rom-com with an English lead was writ­ten for Hugh Grant, but we can be grate­ful that he has all-but retired as it gives Ricky Gervais a meaty role which he grabs with both hands. Gervais may not have much range as an act­or, but he does have depth and I found myself being unac­count­ably moved by a film that always deliv­ers a little more than it says on the tin.

Be Kind Rewind posterIf the remark­able suc­cess of the 48 Hour Film Competition has proved any­thing in recent years it is that mak­ing films is now as much of a com­munity exper­i­ence as watch­ing them and it’s that same hand-made, JFDI, aes­thet­ic that Michel Gondry cel­eb­rates in the very spe­cial Be Kind Rewind.

While mind­ing dod­dery Danny Glover’s ram­shackle New Jersey video (and thrift) store, Mos Def dis­cov­ers that all the pre­cious VHS tapes have been erased by mag­net­ic doo­fuss Jack Black. To save the busi­ness our her­oes re-make the con­tents of the store using only a handycam and their ingenu­ity, even­tu­ally enlist­ing the whole town. I loved Be Kind Rewind and you’ll be hon­our­ing the spir­it of the film if you see it at a theatre with a bunch of strangers.

Mirrors is yet anoth­er re-make of an Asian hor­ror flick and there ain’t much water left in that par­tic­u­lar well. Kiefer Sutherland plays a troubled NY ex-cop who takes a secur­ity guard job at an aban­doned depart­ment store (Romanian and Hungarian stu­di­os plus a tiny bit of stock foot­age stand in for Manhattan). On his first night on the job the mir­rors start to freak him out and two hours of excru­ci­at­ing expos­i­tion follow.

How to Lose Friends & Alienate People posterAlso shot on a European sound stage, though a second unit did make it through JFK to shoot some scenery, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People is an ami­able little romp star­ring Simon Pegg as a try-hard English journ­al­ist try­ing to make it as a celebrity writer on a top New York magazine. Pompous yet insec­ure, Pegg’s Sidney Young (loosely based on author Toby Young whose book was itself loosely based on his own short Manhattan career) cuts a slap­stick swathe through high soci­ety. Pegg is ok (but he’s no Ricky Gervais, see above) but Megan Fox as movie star Sophie has the worst skin I’ve ever seen on a Hollywood lead­ing actress.

RocknRolla posterWriter-Director Guy Ritchie’s dread­ful faux-cockney purple prose has been drooled all over the inter­min­able RocknRolla, a boysie bit of rough and tumble that’s the cine­mat­ic equi­val­ent of someone grabbing you around the neck and rub­bing their knuckles into your skull. The sloppy plot involves a Russian oligarch’s lucky paint­ing, an old school East End gang­ster on the way out, a rock star fak­ing his own death and a big black tick­et tout with a taste for Jane Austen.

Ritchie does have an eye for young tal­ent (Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels made Jason Statham a star): look out for Toby Kebbell (the junkie rock star Johnny Quid) and Tom Hardy (Handsome Bob), just don’t look out for them in this.

And When Did You Last See Your Father? posterFinally, there’s not many films that wouldn’t be improved with the addi­tion of the won­der­ful Jim Broadbent, and he really shines in And When Did You Last See Your Father?, a worthy brit-lit adapt­a­tion that also stars Colin Firth. Broadbent plays the fath­er in ques­tion, a jovi­al egot­ist who doesn’t real­ise that his over-abundant joie-de-vivre is crush­ing the spir­its of those around him. Firth is poet Blake Morrison, com­ing to terms with his father’s ter­min­al ill­ness with the help of plenty of flash­backs to his 60s child­hood. Director Anand Tucker builds his case care­fully until a splen­didly mov­ing finale draws a line under a very sat­is­fy­ing film.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 19 November, 2008.

Nature of con­flict: I pro­duced a couple of plays for Anthony McCarten back in the early 90s – “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and the reviv­al of “Yellow Canary Mazurka”.

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: Ghost TownHow to lose Friends…RocknRolla and Mirrors were all at Readings pub­lic ses­sions (all fine except How to Lose Friends… was slightly out of frame mean­ing some of the titles spilled on to the mask­ing); Be Kind, Rewind was at the Paramount and the first half was 20% out of focus and the whole film was about 20% too quiet; Show of Hands was a late night water­marked DVD from Rialto Entertainment and And When Did You Last See Your Father? was at the Embassy dur­ing the Film Festival back in July.

Review: In Bruges, Death Race, Nights in Rodanthe, Traitor, The Children of the Silk Road, Rubbings from a Live Man and Choke

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

Two hit­men (Gleeson and the excel­lent Colin Farrell) have been sent to the sleepy Belgian town of Bruges to lie low after a job has gone wrong. Once there, they are sup­posed to enjoy the many his­tor­ic and cul­tur­al treats of the beau­ti­fully pre­served walled medi­ev­al city while wait­ing for fur­ther instruc­tions. This suits Gleeson (older, wiser, worldly) but Farrell, frac­tious after the ter­rible stuff-up, wants booze, birds, drugs and trouble. And even in Bruges he finds some of all of it.

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Review: Young @ Heart, Max Payne, Rise of the Footsoldier, A Journey of Dmitri Shostakovich, Brideshead Revisited and Irina Palm

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

Young at Heart posterThe most purely emo­tion­al exper­i­ence I have had in a cinema this year was watch­ing the delight­ful doc­u­ment­ary Young @ Heart dur­ing the Film Festival. It’s a life-affirming (and by its very nature death-affirming too) por­trait of a group of Massachusetts seni­or cit­izen chor­is­ters who tour the world with a pro­gramme of (often con­sciously iron­ic) rock and pop clas­sics and it starts out like the quirky British tv pro­gramme it was ori­gin­ally inten­ded to be. But then these remark­able, love­able, buoy­ant char­ac­ters take con­trol and by the time they get to Dylan’s Forever Young, I may as well have been a puddle on the floor of the cinema. Young at Heart is so suc­cess­ful I even fell in love with Coldplay for about five minutes. It’s that good.

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Review: The Bank Job, The Edge of Heaven, Charlie Bartlett, Apron Strings and Prague

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

One of the pit­falls you try and avoid in this gig is review­ing the film you wish you were watch­ing instead of the one that is actu­ally in front of you. It’s import­ant to judge a work on it’s own terms, as well as it’s own mer­its, and avoid impos­ing your expect­a­tions but, with the best will in the world, there are times when you sit there wish­ing that the film you were watch­ing was, y’know, better.

The Bank Job posterExhibit A is The Bank Job, a leth­ar­gic caper-movie star­ring the reli­able B‑movie action hero Jason Statham. It has all the attrib­utes of an enter­tain­ing night out – chirpy knees-up cock­ney ruf­fi­ans à la Lock Stock; painstak­ing bank heist pre­par­a­tions like Ocean’s 1x; an escape that goes ter­ribly wrong like The Italian Job. The prob­lem is all in the exe­cu­tion: mainly the edit­ing which provides no impetus to the drama until the final third which by then is too late. It’s worth watch­ing for the impec­cable early-70s, East End art dir­ec­tion though. The fla­vour of the times are per­fectly created.

The Edge of Heaven posterOnce I’d got over the fact that The Edge of Heaven was­n’t the long-awaited Wham! biop­ic I was expect­ing and instead an art­house drama set in Turkey and Germany, I settled in to enjoy myself enorm­ously. Writer-Director Fatih Akin spe­cial­ises in stor­ies about the inter­sec­tion between Turkish immig­rants liv­ing hard lives in the new Europe but he has sur­passed him­self this time. Less socio-political than his pre­vi­ous work (but with those threads still woven through­out), The Edge of Heaven tells two par­al­lel stor­ies (that inter­sect and occa­sion­ally frus­trat­ingly don’t) about the pain and heart­break of being a par­ent and child. A richly detailed screen­play sup­ports the clev­er struc­ture and the film ends on a per­fectly sat­is­fy­ing note. Recommended.

Charlie Bartlett posterCharlie Bartlett is a smug, pseudo-indie, com­edy about a gif­ted rich kid (Anton Yelchin) whose money mak­ing schemes get him kicked out of private school and into the main­stream where his attaché case and blazer mark him out for unwanted atten­tion. Charlie’s access to the fam­ily shrinks (and their pre­scrib­ing power) allows him to become unof­fi­cial school ther­ap­ist, hand­ing out Ritalin like candy, provid­ing these kids with the sens­it­ive ear that they can­’t find any­where else and him with a role that tran­scends get­ting beaten up everyday.

Sadly, only the great Robert Downey Jr. (as the alco­hol­ic prin­cip­al) makes the lines sound, not only, like he’d actu­ally thought of them him­self but that they had occurred to him right then and there. Everyone else holds their char­ac­ters at arms length and the whole film wears it’s irony rather too con­sciously on its sleeve.

Apron Strings posterA recent art­icle in The Australian tries to define what ails cur­rent news­pa­per cinema review­ing and one of the examples is “boost­ing unworthy loc­al mater­i­al”. No danger of that with Apron Strings, the first fea­ture by Toi Whakaari gradu­ate and award-winning short film maker Sima Urale. A kitchen-sink drama set in the multi-cultural bad­lands of South Auckland that uses cook­ing as a meta­phor as well as a plot mech­an­ism. In a Curry House on a sub­urb­an street corner, Leela Patel makes her kormas and her sweets while long-lost sis­ter Laila Rouass has become a top tv chef using those same recipes. Meanwhile, Jennifer Ludlam’s big­oted cake dec­or­at­or a few doors down has to deal with her own dis­ap­point­ing chil­dren and a chan­ging world she isn’t very keen on. (Perhaps too) lov­ingly and (too) care­fully dir­ec­ted Apron Strings’ flaws are on the page rather than on the screen. Screenwriters Shuchi Kothari and Dianne Taylor squeeze so much in that the film col­lapses under the weight of all that coin­cid­ence and so many ‘points’. They also prove that it is very dif­fi­cult to write a decent, three-dimensional, white racist char­ac­ter these days without fall­ing back on cliché.

Prague posterAnother example of film review­er irrel­ev­ance from The Australian is the concept of quote-whoring – writ­ing spe­cific­ally to get quoted in an ad. Well, here’s my one for this week: “I was woken by the sound of my own snor­ing”. Probably not the fault of Prague, the new Danish drama star­ring ubi­quit­ous Mads Mikkelsen, as I did man­age to stir before the half way point and quite enjoyed myself after that, but it takes a long time to get going. I’m sure there is a lot in there to reward a patient and attent­ive view­er but, apart from watch­ing one of the great mod­ern screen act­ors at work, I could­n’t find it.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 13 August, 2008.

Nature of con­flict: Well, that gag about fall­ing asleep ended up giv­ing me plenty of grief after I repeated it on Nine to Noon. Prague is dis­trib­uted in New Zealand by Arkles Entertainment, who I do some work for every now and then, and Managing Director (and all round par­agon des­pite some dubi­ous polit­ic­al alle­gi­ances) John Davies was not well-pleased. The threat to fire me faded some­what when the 4 star Herald review appeared. Which just goes to show that, des­pite any appear­ances of a con­flict of interest, the opin­ions offered here are always inde­pend­ent and free of influence.