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Conflict of Interest

Review: Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The X-Files: I Want to Believe, Closing the Ring, Smart People, Married Life, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and Journey From the Fall

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

Forgetting Sarah Marshall posterForgetting Sarah Marshall is an ideal post-Festival palate cleanser: a saucy comedy fresh off the Judd Apatow production line (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up). Here he gives the spotlight to one of his supporting players: Jason Segal (Knocked Up) plays tv composer Peter who within two minutes of the start of the film is dumped by tv star Sarah M. (Kristen Bell from “Veronica Mars”). He goes to Hawaii to recover only to discover that his ex is also there – with her new English rock star boyfriend. Very funny in parts, surprisingly moving at times thanks to a heartfelt performance from big lump Segal, FSM gets an extra half a star for featuring professional West Ham fan Russell Brand, playing a version of his sex-addicted stage persona.

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Review: The Incredible Hulk, In the Valley of Elah, The Happening, Outsourced and You Don’t Mess With the Zohan

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

The Incredible Hulk posterI think we can safely call a halt to these semi-annual Hulk movies now — the new one is good enough that we can all move on (Ant-Man is evidently next). The Incredible Hulk is Marvel’s attempt to wrestle back the franchise that got away from them under Ang Lee in 2003 and eventually re-unify the Marvel universe under the suave, unstoppable box office force of Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man. To retrieve The Hulk, Marvel cast Hollywood’s weediest leading man, Edward Norton (Fight Club), not realising that Norton also has a reputation as a bit of a meddler who then re-wrote the script and sat in on the editing.

The result, as you might expect, is a bit of a noisy mess, but far from disastrous. After a splendidly condensed opening title sequence which takes us through the back-story of the original experiments that Gamma-ized poor Bruce Banner, we meet him on the run in Brazil, labouring in a bottling plant, taking anger management classes and collaborating online with a mysterious scientist who may hold the key to a cure. Unfortunately for him, the General (a suitably comic-book performance by William Hurt) arrives with a squad to take him home. This makes him angry, of course, and unleashes the green beast within.

If anything, it is more respectful of the TV series than the comic book, featuring cameos from original Hulk Lou Ferrigno and a clunky posthumous cameo from TV Banner Bill Bixby. In fact, looking back on it the film spends more time honouring the past than it does driving into the future, often falling prey to cutesy touches like having Norton Anti-Virus fire up when Banner logs on to a computer. Chief Villain Tim Roth looks like Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, which makes his character name, The Abomination, perfectly apt.

In the Valley of Elah posterPaul Haggis created the Oscar-winning Crash back in 2004 and, after helping reinvent Bond in Casino Royale, has gone back to the political well with the heartfelt In the Valley of Elah, starring Tommy Lee Jones. Jones plays former Army investigator Hank Deerfield. His son has just returned from Iraq but immediately gone AWOL so Hank travels across Texas to find him. What he discovers shakes his faith in his country and the military and (I’m guessing) is supposed to have some metaphoric weight about the state of the nation and the world and it probably does. I was one of many who found Crash to be appalling, un-watchable, rubbish but Elah (perhaps because it doesn’t try and do so much) is better.

While Haggis wears his heart on his sleeve, what he really needs is a copy editor on his shoulder. Someone needs to tell him that when you cast someone as soulful as Tommy Lee Jones you can just let him tell the audience what is going on with his eyes — you don’t then have to then verbalise it in the next shot. Probably an easy mistake to make when you are a writer first and a director second…

The Happening posterIf Haggis needs a copy editor then M. Night Shyamalan needs a security guard on the door of his office, holding the keys to his typewriter. The Happening is an eco-thriller about a mysterious “event” that causes people across the North East of America to lose their minds and then do away with themselves. Among those caught up in the mess is high school science teacher Mark Wahlberg who thinks the mysterious disappearance of America’s bee population might have something to do with it.

Shyamalan has obvious talent as a director: he has an eye for an arresting image and has seen enough Hitchcock to construct effective set-pieces but he can’t write dialogue that human beings can actually say which continually drops the audience out of the moment. Luckily, whenever I lost connection to the story, there was Zooey Deschanel (as Wahlberg’s wife), whose electric blue eyes should be categorised as an alternative fuel source.

Outsourced posterOutsourced is returning to cinemas after a brief turn at the World Cinema Showcase. It’s a beguiling tale of a Seattle call centre manager (Josh Hamilton) who has to go to India to train his replacement when the novelty company he works for relocates “fulfilment” to Gwaripur. The usual cross-cultural misunderstandings occur but the characters all grow on you, much like India grows on our hero.

You Don't Mess With The Zohan posterFinally, legendary social commentator Adam Sandler takes on another pressing political issue (after gay marriage in I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry) and helps solve the conflict in the Middle East with You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, a hit and miss comedy that is mostly hit for a change. Sandler is the Zohan, number one Israeli counter-terrorist operative, who is tired of the endless conflict and yearns to emulate his hero (Paul Mitchell), cut hair in New York and make everything “silky smooth”. So he fakes his own death and smuggles his way in to America where the only job he can get is in a Palestinian salon. His unorthodox methods with the ladies soon make him very popular indeed but the conflict is never far away.

There are plenty of jokes per minute and the relentless teasing of Israelis for their love of fizzy drinks, hummus, disco and hacky-sack is pretty entertaining.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 18 June 2008.

Nature of conflict: Outsourced is distributed in New Zealand by Arkles Entertainment who I do a little work for now and then.

Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Forbidden Lies, The Last Magic Show and 4

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

Indiana Jones posterThe two universes of Steven Spielberg’s biggest films of the 70’s and 80’s collide in Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as Harrison Ford’s ageing Indie and young pretender Shia LaBoeuf race Soviet ice Queen Cate Blanchett to the secret resting place of lost extra terrestrials in the heart of the Amazon. There’s even a subtle “ET Phone Home” reference which I found kind of cute. Entertaining and a little sloppy (in a good way), Indy has a middle-aged pace about it, a noticeable change from the current trend towards frenetic, percussive, music video action, allowing plenty of time to develop inventive ways to get Harrison Ford into, and out of, trouble. I wasn’t too upset with LaBoeuf (he certainly isn’t JarJar Binks bad) but you can see he has a way to go before he can muster the sort of effortless charisma his elders offer.

Forbidden Lie$ posterFollowing the murder of her best friend by her own family in an “honour killing” in Jordan, Norma Khouri escapes to Greece and hastily begins writing a passionate book exposing the practice. The book, Forbidden Love, is published in late 2001 to great acclaim and soon achieves best-seller status but some in Jordan (and in Australia where Norma settles) have questions about the book. Further investigation reveals that nothing in the first 32 words of this paragraph is true and that Norma herself has a more interesting past than she is prepared to own up to. As Norma’s story unravels and the investigation follows her from Bridie Island in Queensland to Chicago and ultimately to Amman in Jordan, you find yourself on a very strange road indeed.

4 posterAnother non-fiction film, of a completely different order, is the classical music documentary 4. Attempting to rescue Vivaldi’s Four Seasons from TVC cliché, director Tim Slade uses the four movements as a structure to build a portrait of four players, four places and the four seasons themselves. At least that’s what I think the idea is. The problem with the film is that there’s not enough music for it to be a great music movie, there’s not enough insight into the players for the portrait part to work and, while the visuals are often quite beautiful, the film seems to miss the point that four seasons are influential on the human psyche because we see those seasons change from our own perspective and location. Still, 4 is a pleasant enough hour and a half.

The Last Magic Show posterA new entry in the digi-indie-home-made kiwi battler category (previous entries include Wairarapa’s When Night Falls last year) is Andy Conlan’s The Last Magic Show. Conlan himself (who also wrote the script) plays Ronnie Roman, an delusional illusionist who may or may not have real mystical powers. His agent, scenery-chewing Michael Hurst, has set him up for a big come-back show but in the interim he is reduced to volunteering at the local hospice and, possibly, falling in love with Nurse March (Georgie Hill). Conlan has a bit of the young Johnny Depp about him in the looks department but, ultimately, his blank performance creates frustration rather than mystery. Good-looking, odd, strangely paced, The Last Magic Show is an intriguing art movie. Perhaps next time, Conlan shouldn’t try and do all the big creative jobs himself — a better director might have challenged him to come up with a few more layers.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 28 May, 2008.

I hereby apologise to regular readers for the paucity of updates but a fierce combination of the flu and managing this year’s 48 Hours Furious Filmmaking competition have wiped me out and I’m only just coming up for air. And, I’m well behind on my feature-watching: Mama’s Boy has already been and gone from local screens.

Nature of conflict: Forbidden Lie$ is distributed in New Zealand by Richard Dalton at Palace Films who is a mate and The Last Magic Show and 4 are distributed by Arkles Entertainment who are mates and who I do occasional work for.

Review: The Painted Veil, Superhero Movie, Sydney White and Four Minutes

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest, Reviews and Wellington

The Painted Veil posterW. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel The Painted Veil has been given a handsome new adaptation by Australian director John Curran (We Don’t Live Here Anymore). Naomi Watts takes on the role of naïve young Kitty Fane (once portrayed by legendary Greta Garbo) who marries dour Scottish scientist Walter (Edward Norton) and travels to China to escape her overbearing parents. But she indulges in a foolish affair with handsome Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber) and Walter insists that she accompany him to the cholera-ridden interior as punishment. While Walter tries to save the lives of the locals by cleaning up their water supply, Kitty discovers herself via the local convent and an unlikely Diana Rigg. A fine film (with an award-winning score butchered by a faulty digital soundtrack at the screening I saw), the images are ravishing, the performances are uniformly excellent and you could do a lot worse on a wet weekend.

Superhero Movie posterAfter loathing last year’s Meet the Spartans and cursing it’s predecessor Epic Movie, it was with a heavy heart that I took my seat for Superhero Movie, another parody pot-pourri. One name in the credits lifted my spirits a little (no, not Pamela Anderson): David Zucker, director of Top Secret!, Airplane and The Naked Gun. As it turns out the few funny moments in the film are gags that could have come straight from those earlier films (“Fruit cake?” “No, I’ve just never met the right woman”) but the rest is a repetitive waste of time. Why bother parodying films that are essentially only parodies themselves?

Sydney White posterTalking of repetitive, I got an odd sense of déjà vu during Superhero Movie before I realised that Dragonfly’s love interest Jill Johnson was being played by someone called Sara Paxton who had also been the villain in Sydney White not two hours before. It’s an odd item, Sydney White: the Snow White fairy tale re-located to College and starring Amanda Bynes (She’s The Man) as a working class tomboy trying to get into a snooty sorority. Kicked out in disgrace, she has to shack up with the seven dorks next door (each dork is a re-imagining one of Disney’s original dwarfs — can you name them all?) and then bring the school together under an Obama-like banner of inclusiveness, at the same time finding her own Prince Charming (who even manages to wake her with a kiss). Strangely watchable.

Four Minutes posterSadly, I couldn’t bring myself to believe in any of Four Minutes, from the unlikely teenage piano-prodigy / murderess combo (Hannah Herzprung) or the bitter old lesbian prison piano teacher (Monica Bleibtrau), or the opera loving but brutish prison guard (Sven Pippig). I wish I could have watched it with the subtitles turned off so that I could enjoy the music and art director Silke Buhr’s amazing sense of texture and architectural environment. Every location has an almost tactile quality, from the decaying brick prison to the gilt Opera House at the climax. I was particularly taken with a concrete neo-brutalist concert hall reminiscent of Wellington’s beloved Hannah Playhouse.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday April 30, 2008.

Nature of Conflict: Four Minutes is released in New Zealand by Arkles Entertainment who pay me to work for them on occasion.

Review: U2 3D, Nim’s Island, Street Kings, St. Trinian’s, College Road Trip, Hunting & Gathering, Blindsight, I Have Never Forgotten You and The Real Dirt on Farmer John

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

U2 3D posterEarlier this year I arbitrarily decided that the Hannah Montana 3D concert movie was not cinema and chose not to review it. Now, a few short weeks later, I exercise my right to indulge in rank hypocrisy by stating that the U2 3D concert movie is cinema and, thus, belongs in this column. Pieced together from concerts in soccer stadia across Latin America (plus one without an audience for close-ups), U2 3D is an amazing experience and truly must be seen to be believed.

I hadn’t expected the new digital 3D medium to be used so expertly so soon but creators Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington have managed to make the entire stadium space manifest with floating cameras and intelligently layered digital cross-fading, giving you a concert (and cinema) experience that can not be imagined any other way. Even if you are not a U2 fan this film deserves to be seen as an example of the potential of 3D to transform the medium.

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Review: Run Fatboy Run, Vantage Point, The Other Boleyn Girl, Interview, Step Up 2 the Streets and 10,000 BC

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

My normal, equable, approach to Hollywood blockbuster product has been upset this week by the news that, in a decision of quite breathtaking cynicism, Warner Bros. are going to split the final Harry Potter film (The Deathly Hallows due in 2010) in to two parts and thus, with a wave of a Potter-like wand, make $500m appear where no money was before. Normal service may well be resumed next week but for now I am grumpy and it may show.

Run Fatboy Run posterSimon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) leaves his hit-making collaborators, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright, behind for a while for his new comedy Run Fatboy Run. He plays loveable waster Dennis Doyle who could easily be a cousin of Shaun (or Tim in “Spaced”). Five years ago he ran out on his beautiful pregnant girlfriend, Thandie Newton, on their wedding day. Now, she has hooked up with handsome, rich, American marathon runner Hank Azaria (The Simpsons) and Dennis (with the help of very funny best friend Dylan Moran from “Black Books”) decides to win her back by proving he can finish a London Marathon. Competent and energetic but with the occasional bum note, Run Fatboy Run is like a pub band cover version of a great British romantic comedy. One of the reasons why it doesn’t always work must be down to first-time feature director David Schwimmer (Ross from “Friends”) whose timing, sadly, isn’t always on.

Vantage Point posterThey say you never come out of a film humming the structure, which in the case of plucky little thriller Vantage Point is a shame as the structure is really all it has going for it. An attempted assassination of US President Ashton (William Hurt) in Salamanca, Spain is told and retold from the differing perspectives of several protagonists and witnesses, including Dennis Quaid’s ageing Secret Serviceman and Forest Whitaker’s handicam-toting tourist. The plot is never fully unravelled, though, leaving too many questions unanswered not least of which why Spanish terrorists would collaborate with jihadists. There’s one great car chase, though, involving what looks like a Holden Barina. Everything else disappoints.

The Other Boleyn Girl posterWith The Other Boleyn Girl, The Queen scribe Peter Morgan turns his attention to another chapter in Britain’s royal history: the bed-hopping, neck-chopping, Tudor soap opera starring Henry VIII and his search for an heir; a prequel, if you will, to Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth. Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman play the Boleyn sisters, competing for the attention of Eric Bana’s handsome but unstable Henry (if they only knew he was going to turn into Charles Laughton they might not have tried so hard). The original novel was bodice-ripping romantic fiction dressed as literature and the film serves the same purpose. Entertaining.

Interview official siteSteve Buscemi takes the director’s chair (and stars in) Interview, a low-key two-hander also featuring Sienna Miller. Buscemi plays cynical political journalist Pierre who is forced to interview a famous soap star. Based on, and far too respectful of, a film by murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, Interview feels like a stage play — and not in a good way.

Step Up 2 The Streets posterEver since West Side Story (and possibly earlier) dance has been used as a metaphor for urban violence but in recent years the trend has got some commercial legs as filmmakers realise they can present hip-hop music and urban situations in a PG environment. In Step Up a white urban freestyle dancer (Channing Tatum) tried to make it at ballet school. In the sequel (Step Up 2 The Streets), a white freestyle urban dancer (Briana Evigan) tries to make it at the same ballet school. But she’s from The Streets, you see, and she’s an orphan so she gathers the other outcasts and ethnics from the school so they can compete with the gang-bangers in an “illegal” dance competition. I’m fascinated, obviously, by these films not least the promotion of dance as competition over dance as expression. But I’m over-thinking as usual.

10,000 BC posterFinally, 10,000 BC is fitfully entertaining twaddle. Historically and anthropologically inaccurate not to mention ethnologically offensive, my recommendation is to wait for the video, get stoned with your mates and then talk all the way through it.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 19 March, 2008 although space constraints saw the last few items cut. So, Interview, Step Up 2 The Streets and 10,000 BC are like web-only bonus items.

Nature of Conflict: Interview is distributed in New Zealand by Arkles Entertainment who I sometimes do a little work for.