Skip to main content
Category

Conflict of Interest

Review: The Bucket List, Jumper, Rescue Dawn, Goodbye Bafana, We Own the Night and Delirious

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

The Bucket List posterThe trail­er for The Bucket List has been play­ing for weeks now, indu­cing groans at every appear­ance. By col­lect­ing a series of Jack Nicholson’s now trade­mark Jack-isms plus Morgan Freeman’s reg­u­lar, twinkly, wise old man schtick and then sprinkled with plenty of schmaltz, the trail­er made me act­ively want to avoid a film that looked like a lame set of sac­char­ine clichés and tired ham act­ing – cyn­ic­al Hollywood at its worst.

I am pleased to report, how­ever, that The Bucket List is a much more enjoy­able film than I was expect­ing. There is some excel­lent work from Nicholson and Freeman who are well coached by dir­ect­or Rob Reiner, with the help of a script by Justin Zackham that has sev­er­al decent moments. Nicholson plays mis­an­throp­ic health tycoon Edward Cole who is dia­gnosed with brain can­cer and forced, due to his own tight-fisted policies, to share a room with car mech­an­ic and lung can­cer patient Freeman. When he dis­cov­ers Freeman has a wish-list of things to do before he dies, he takes it upon him­self to make them come true using the bil­lions he has accu­mu­lated in the cor­rupt American health care sys­tem.

Read More

Review: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, American Gangster, After the Wedding, Clubland, Death at a Funeral, Alien vs. Predator- Requiem, Elsa & Fred and Lust, Caution

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

Sweeney Todd poster2008 is shap­ing up to be a year of great films about people being beastly to each oth­er and the first cab off the rank is Tim Burton’s majest­ic adapt­a­tion of Sondheim’s broad­way opera Sweeney Todd. Based on the true-ish story of the Victorian barber who murders his cus­tom­ers to provide fresh meat for his girlfriend’s pies, Sweeney Todd is pos­it­ively Shakespearian in scale – meaty, sav­age, sin­is­ter and poignant.
Johnny Depp plays the tal­en­ted scissor-man who returns to London 15 years after he was trans­por­ted to the colon­ies by crooked Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) who had desires on his pretty wife. Consumed with a pas­sion for revenge Todd goes back to work above the shop selling London’s worst pies, made by the redoubt­able Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). There, more by acci­dent than design, they dis­cov­er that his skills with a razor might be prof­it­able in more ways than one.

Sondheim’s music and lyr­ics are as good as any oth­er writ­ing for the stage in the last cen­tury and the film ver­sion hon­ours that tal­ent uncon­di­tion­ally. When young Toby (Ed Sanders) sings “Not While I’m Around” (prob­ably the most beau­ti­ful song ever writ­ten) to Mrs Lovett you can see the look in her eyes that shows he has just sealed his own fate, the tem­per­at­ure in the theatre seemed to drop a few degrees. Not just any­one can pull that off.

American Gangster poster

The best of the rest at the moment is Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, a pacy and obser­v­ant look at the life of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), Harlem’s most notori­ous and suc­cess­ful drug deal­er of the 1970s. Russell Crowe plays Richie Roberts, the only hon­est cop in New York. It’s an inter­est­ing story well told by three cha­ris­mat­ic film personalities.

After the Wedding poster

After the Wedding is a lovely, layered drama from Denmark star­ring the watch­able Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale) as an aid work­er at an Indian orphan­age who is summoned back to Copenhagen by a mys­ter­i­ous bil­lion­aire (Rolf Lassgård). Lassgård wants to donate enough money to save the pro­gramme – mil­lions of dol­lars – but there are strings attached. Those strings turn out to be less nefar­i­ous than they seem at first but the choice that Mikkelsen’s Jacob has to make is still a heart-breaking one. Totally recommended.

Clubland poster

Totally un-recommended is the Australian comedy-drama Clubland about an unusu­al show­biz fam­ily led by dom­in­eer­ing moth­er Brenda Blethyn. Asinine in con­cep­tion and hor­rible in exe­cu­tion, it struggles to get one good per­form­ance out the entire cast put together.

Death at a Funeral posterDeath at a Funeral isn’t much bet­ter, although a couple of per­form­ances (Peter Dinklage and a doughy Matthew McFadyen) rise above the cheap and nasty script. The funer­al is for McFadyen’s fath­er and vari­ous friends and fam­ily mem­bers have assembled to form a quor­um of English ste­reo­types. Standard farce ele­ments like mis­taken iden­tity and acci­dent­al drug-taking are shoe-horned togeth­er with the help of some poo jokes.

Alien vs. Predator: Requiem poster

Alien vs. Predator: Requiem man­aged to dis­ap­pear from my memory about as soon as I left the theatre with my ears still ringing from the noise. An Alien pod being trans­por­ted across the galaxy crash lands in Colorado and starts lay­ing eggs – cause that’s just how they roll. A creature from the Predator home-world tries to clean up the mess and a whole bunch of ran­dom cit­izens get caught in the middle. All the sig­na­ture moments from the ori­gin­al Alien (the chest-bursting, the almost-kissing a whim­per­ing young woman) are repeated often, to dimin­ish­ing effect and, I know I some­times see cine­mat­ic racism every­where, is it really neces­sary for both malevol­ent extra-terrestrial races to look like big black men with dreadlocks?

Elsa & Fred poster

There’s a fact­ory in China, I’m sure, stamp­ing out films like Elsa & Fred on a weekly basis, mak­ing subtle cul­tur­al and gen­er­a­tion­al changes where neces­sary but pre­serving the for­mula like it’s Coca Cola. And fair enough as these films will always sell: un-challenging, easy to decipher, vaguely life-affirming. Elsa (China Zorrilla) is a batty old woman in a Madrid apart­ment block. Fred (Manuel Alexandre) is the quiet wid­ower who moves in oppos­ite. She decides to point him back the dir­ec­tion of life and he tries to make her dreams come true before it is too late.

Lust, Caution poster

Finally, Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution is an extremely well-made but over­long erot­ic thrill­er set in Japanese-occupied China dur­ing WWII. Stunning new­comer Wei Tang plays Wong Chia Chi, per­suaded in a moment of youth­ful, pat­ri­ot­ic weak­ness to join a stu­dent res­ist­ance group. She is sent under­cov­er to try and woo the mys­ter­i­ous Mr Yee (Tony Leung) who is a seni­or offi­cial col­lab­or­at­ing with the Japanese occu­pa­tion forces. Unfortunately, for them both he is inter­ested but a chal­len­ging mark and it is sev­er­al years before she can get close enough to him (and believe me she gets very close) for the res­ist­ance to strike. Ang Lee is the poet of the stolen glance and he is in very good form – I just wish it hadn’t taken quite so long to get going.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 23 January, 2008.

Nature of Conflict: After the Wedding is dis­trib­uted in NZ and Australia by Arkles Entertainment who I do some work for; Clubland is dis­trib­uted in Australia and NZ by Palace whose NZ activ­it­ies are looked after by the excel­lent Richard Dalton, who is a good mate.

At present Reading Cinemas are not offer­ing press passes to the Capital Times. This means that their exclus­ive releases (such as Cloverfield) will go un-reviewed unless I can work some­thing out with them or the dis­trib­ut­or. Maybe I’ll just down­load them …

Review: We’re Here To Help, Control, The Last Trapper, 1408, Lions for Lambs and Death Proof

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

We're Here to Help stillIn 1993 Christchurch prop­erty developer Dave Henderson tried to get a GST refund on a pro­ject he was work­ing on in Lower Hutt. When the IRD officer sexu­ally har­assed his part­ner, Dave threatened to kick him “half way down Cashel Street”. It turned out the IRD were the wrong people to threaten and the hell unleashed is entirely in the oth­er dir­ec­tion. After years of audits, pro­sec­u­tions and bank­ruptcies it took inter­ven­tion from the hero­ic Rodney Hide to finally put a stop to the abuse.

We’re Here to Help will look right at home on tele­vi­sion when it even­tu­ally appears (the IRD recep­tion area looks like the old Shortland Street set) but if you go now you’ll have plenty to talk about at your sum­mer barbecues.

There’s a lot to like about We’re Here to Help, par­tic­u­larly see­ing exper­i­enced New Zealand act­ors like John Leigh and Stephen Papps giv­en some free­dom to play (and lead Erik Thomson is an effort­less every­man) but the film gets ter­ribly strange when Michael Hurst turns up dressed in a a fat suit to play Hide. He’s totally mis­cast and it becomes a com­pletely dif­fer­ent film (some­thing by Jim Henson per­haps) when he is onscreen.

Have the IRD changed their ways? It has been argued that the unpleas­ant­ness served up to Henderson had its roots in an insu­lar Christchurch busi­ness com­munity but I know that sev­er­al people con­nec­ted to the pro­duc­tion were very wary of poten­tial IRD retali­ation over the film and the fact that Producer John Barnett is cur­rently being audited may not be an inno­cent coincidence.

Control posterIan Curtis, Macclesfield’s match­less pur­vey­or of un-listenable dirges, gets the big screen biop­ic treat­ment in Control. It’s a hand­some pro­duc­tion with some fine per­form­ances (not least from new­comer Sam Riley as Curtis); the act­ors play­ing Joy Division recre­ate the music with dis­tress­ing accur­acy and dir­ect­or Anton Corbijn employs the most effect­ive use of black and white pho­to­graphy since Raging Bull.

The Last Trapper posterDog-sledding seems like a des­per­ately uncer­tain meth­od of trans­port­a­tion in The Last Trapper. Canadian hunter and wil­der­ness vet­er­an Norman Winther seems to spend most of his time tip­ping over, fall­ing into frozen lakes, down rav­ines and tangling him­self up with the dogs. Winther plays him­self but it isn’t a doc­u­ment­ary (although I’m sure there are grains of truth in each recre­ation). My recom­mend­a­tion would be to stick your fin­gers in your ears to ignore the clunky dia­logue and poor dub­bing and con­cen­trate on the beau­ti­ful Yukonic visuals.

1408 posterBack in 1983 Stephen King gave us a haunted car in Christine. Now, 24 years later he has come up with a haunted hotel room in 1408. Rumours that his next pro­ject will be about a haunted shop­ping trol­ley are pure spec­u­la­tion on my part. As for 1408, there are few sur­prises on offer and, apart from the always watch­able John Cusack, it really did noth­ing for me.

Lions for Lambs posterHere in New Zealand Robert Redford’s pat­ron­ising polit­ic­al sci­ence exer­cise Lions for Lambs seems so much like preach­ing to the choir but it would inter­est­ing to see it with a dif­fer­ent audi­ence, one for whom the simplist­ic his­tory and eth­ics les­sons on offer are fresh and inspir­ing. On second thoufghts I don’t think that audi­ence exists. Tom Cruise plays ambi­tious Republican sen­at­or Jasper Irving, try­ing to manip­u­late cred­u­lous report­er Meryl Streep into pro­mot­ing the latest ran­dom mil­it­ary surge in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan the surge itself has star­ted badly and in California Pol-Sci pro­fess­or Redford is try­ing to con­vince one last stu­dent to devote him­self to self­less pub­lic ser­vice instead of easy money and a quiet life.

Death Proof posterFinally, Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof is pure cine­mat­ic enter­tain­ment – an expertly con­struc­ted throwaway trib­ute to the cheap thrills of the 70s. Awesome Kurt Russell plays Stuntman Mike, a nasty piece of work who use his souped up “death proof” Chevy Nova to wreak hav­oc on two groups of young women. Luckily for the second bunch, they have kiwi stun­t­wo­man Zoe Bell (Kill Bill) in the team and the abil­ity to fight back. I came out of Death Proof grin­ning from ear to ear.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 14 November, 2007.

Nature of Conflict: John Leigh, Stephen Papps and sev­er­al oth­er mem­bers of the cast of We’re Here To Help are great mates of long stand­ing. And Erik Thomson is a cousin.

Review: The Devil Dared Me To, Atonement, A Mighty Heart, The Brave One and Conversations With My Gardener

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

The Devil Dared Me To posterI fully inten­ded to bring some intel­lec­tu­al acu­ity back to film com­ment­ary this week; maybe toss around terms like mise en scène and cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance; maybe name drop Bresson and his them­at­ic aus­ter­ity and form­al rigour. Then I saw little Kiwi bat­tler, The Devil Dared Me To, a hand-made low-brow enter­tain­ment from the vodka and Becks-fuelled ima­gin­a­tions of Back of the Y’s Chris Stapp and Matt Heath, and I real­ised that high-falutin’ cinema the­ory was destined for the back burn­er for anoth­er week.

Stapp plays wan­nabe stunt hero Randy Campbell and Heath is his malevol­ent ment­or Dick Johansonson. The Timaru Hellriders are about to col­lapse under the weight of invi­di­ous OSH atten­tion and Dick’s lost nerve. Oily pro­moter Sheldon Snake (Dominic Bowden) bails them out so they can take on the North Island and get Campbell closer to his dream of being the first man to jump Cook Strait in a rock­et car. Wildly uneven but often very, very, funny The Devil Dared Me To con­tains pos­sibly the worst act­ing (and worst spelling) of any recent New Zealand film.

It’s entirely appro­pri­ate that The Devil has come out while we are cel­eb­rat­ing the 30th anniversary of Roger Donaldson’s Sleeping Dogs; anoth­er back yard, oily rag fea­ture with a sim­il­ar lar­rikin approach towards the pro­duc­tion process.

Atonement poster2007 has been a great year for good films but a poor year for great films; very little of what I’ve seen in 2007 belongs in the very top ech­el­on. The most ser­i­ous con­tender so far is Atonement, adap­ted from Ian McEwan’s nov­el about a lie told in inno­cence that has far reach­ing and ter­rible consequences.

In a bliss­fully beau­ti­ful British coun­try house in the sum­mer of 1935, pre­co­cious 13-year-old Briony Tallis (lumin­ous Saoirse Ronan) is jeal­ous of the atten­tion her older sis­ter Cecilia (Keira Knightley) is get­ting from hand­some Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) and impuls­ively accuses him of a ter­rible crime. The accus­a­tion tears the young lov­ers apart and leaves Briony con­sumed by a griev­ous guilt that she takes a life­time to come to terms with. Virtually faultless.

A Mighty Heart posterA Mighty Heart is an arms-length ver­sion of the true story of the Karachi kid­nap­ping and murder of American journ­al­ist Daniel Pearl in the after­math of 9/11. Actually, arms-length isn’t a ter­ribly fair descrip­tion: it starts that way but slowly reels you in thanks to assured dir­ec­tion from Michael Winterbottom and good per­form­ances from an ensemble cast led by Angelina Jolie.

The Brave One posterI really wanted to give The Brave One the bene­fit of the doubt until its absurdity and con­sist­ently poor nar­rat­ive choices over­came my res­ist­ance and I simply had to hate it. Jodie Foster plays mild-mannered Erica Bain, a radio pro­du­cer in New York, engaged to hand­some doc­tor Naveen Andrews from Lost. Walking the dog late one night the couple are bru­tally attacked by thugs leav­ing her badly beaten and the boy­friend dead. Overcome by fear and grief she buys a gun for pro­tec­tion but finds her­self tak­ing on a much more malevol­ent role. Terrence Howard is the good cop on her trail.

Conversations With My Gardener posterThere’s noth­ing so objec­tion­able on offer in Conversations With My Gardener, a French charm­er star­ring the ubi­quit­ous Daniel Auteuil as an artist return­ing to his fam­ily home in the coun­try while his divorce goes through. He employs wily loc­al Jean-Pierre Darroussin to knock him up a veget­able garden and, over the sum­mer, the two embark on a friend­ship that involves (as is the way of things in French films) the simple loc­al giv­ing life les­sons to the soph­ist­ic­ated townie.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 17 October, 2007.

Full dis­clos­ure: I have known Ant Timpson (pro­du­cer of The Devil Dared Me To) since 1994 when I did pub­li­city for the first Incredibly Strange Film Festival and I look after the Wellington leg of the 48 Hours Furious Filmmaking Challenge which Ant has run since 2003. The 1st AD on Devil was Jeremy Anderson, who has been a very close friend and Black Caps fan for nearly 18 years. He is a top man and I’m stoked to see his work on the big screen. If you need a 1st, give him a call.

Review: Black Book, The Kingdom, The Nanny Diaries and Half Nelson

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

Black Book posterPaul Verhoeven is one of those dir­ect­ors that has no hand-brake, regard­less of the sub­ject mat­ter. For ice-pick wield­ing mur­der­ers (Basic Instinct) or giant ali­en bugs (Starship Troopers) this damn-the-torpedos atti­tude is per­fect; when we’re talk­ing about Dutch jews being betrayed by cor­rupt mem­bers of the res­ist­ance in WWII – not so much.

Black Book is Verhoeven’s first film in sev­en years, and his first film back home in Holland since Flesh + Blood back in 1985. Carice van Houten plays Rachel Stein, a nightclub sing­er before the war, now on the run from the Nazis. When her fam­ily is murdered on the brink of escape she dyes her hair blonde and joins the res­ist­ance, going under­cov­er and then fall­ing in love with the good German played by Sebastian Koch from The Lives of Others (you know he’s going to be a good German because he col­lects stamps and does­n’t have a scar on his cheek).

Read More

Review: Unknown, Stephanie Daley, Rush Hour 3, La Vie En Rose and Deep Water

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

Unknown posterAs recoun­ted by cel­eb­rated neur­o­lo­gist Oliver Sacks in a recent New Yorker, amne­sia is a fas­cin­at­ing con­di­tion. In the art­icle he tells the story of clas­sic­al musi­cian Clive Wearing who, due to enchaphal­it­is more than 20 years ago, can retain new memor­ies for no longer than a few seconds. The dev­ast­a­tion of his case is tran­scen­ded by two things: the love of his wife (which he is aware of even though he sees her as if for the first time every day) and his music­al abil­ity which remains complete.

In Hollywood, amne­sia (like oth­er dis­orders) is rarely por­trayed as a tra­gic con­di­tion with ser­i­ous and fas­cin­at­ing psy­cho­lo­gic­al impacts but instead is usu­ally just a plot device. New thrill­er Unknown, star­ring Jim Caviezel, Greg Kinnear and Barry Pepper, tries a little bit of both.

In a remote aban­doned chem­ic­al ware­house five men wake up with no memor­ies of who they are or how they got there. Two of the group have been kid­napped, the oth­ers are the gang. But who?

While all the evid­ence points to Caviezel being one of the kid­nap­pers (he was­n’t tied up at the begin­ning for a start) he does­n’t feel like one and, des­pite the shift­ing alle­gi­ances and Lord of the Flies power-plays, he attempts to bind the group togeth­er so they can all escape before the ringlead­er returns with the ransom. It’s an inter­est­ing exist­en­tial­ist pro­voca­tion although, in the end, fur­ther psy­cho­lo­gic­al insight is sac­ri­ficed in favour of yet anoth­er plot twist.

Stephanie Daley posterInsight is what forensic psy­cho­lo­gist Tilda Swinton is after in Stephanie Daley. Heavily preg­nant, and still mourn­ing the loss of a pre­vi­ous unborn child, she is asked to inter­view the eponym­ous school­girl (Amber Tamblyn) who is accused of con­ceal­ing her own preg­nancy and then mur­der­ing the new-born baby. Her exam­in­a­tion will decide the fate of the tim­id young Christian girl who may indeed be too inno­cent to real­ize what a drunk­en date-rape can lead to. Stephanie Daley is a well acted drama with a fine sense of place, loc­ated in snowy upstate New York, and a lot going on under the surface.

Rush Hour 3 posterBack at the mul­ti­plex, Rush Hour 3 is one of the poorest excuses for enter­tain­ment it is been my mis­for­tune to wit­ness. And to think that part-timer Chris Tucker was paid $25m to star in it (a fee which evid­ently did not require any time at the gym to pre­pare). Jackie Chan is show­ing his age too. Abject.

La Vie En Rose posterI spent most of the time watch­ing La Vie En Rose think­ing that I’d seen the film some­where before. A beau­ti­fully art dir­ec­ted recre­ation of the life of a troubled artist from the wrong side of the tracks, dev­ast­ated by drug addic­tion and guilt, it could have been Ray or Walk The Line except for the fact that little Edith Piaf did­n’t have time for the redemp­tion and tri­umph that the Hollywood biop­ics demand.

Piaf was an extraordin­ary char­ac­ter, a huge and vibrant voice in a frail and tiny frame. Writer-director Olivier Dahan makes con­sist­ently inter­est­ing choices (par­tic­u­larly a death-bed mont­age at the end which amaz­ingly con­tains noth­ing that we have seen before) and Marion Cotillard plays Piaf with all the fierce and demen­ted self-destructive energy she can sum­mon up. She’s a force of nature and it is one of the per­form­ances of the year.

Deep Water posterFinally, superb doc­u­ment­ary Deep Water finally gets the prom­ised com­mer­cial release and I urge you not to miss it. And, if you already saw it at the Festival check it out again as it’s quite a dif­fer­ent film second time around.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 3 October, 2007.

Full dis­clos­ure: Unknown is dis­trib­uted in New Zealand by Arkles Entertainment who pay me money to do stuff for them from time to time.