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Conflict of Interest

Review: Stardust, Surf’s Up, Bratz, Underdog, Hula Girls, Five Moments of Infidelity and When Night Falls

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

Bratz posterIt’s the school hol­i­days: that time of the year when this review­er obvi­ously has to atone for the sins of a pre­vi­ous life by sit­ting through the candy-coated com­mer­cial­ised detrit­us that we foist on our kids to keep them off the streets.

Firstly, the worst of the lot: Bratz is as tox­ic as the chinese-made toys that inspired it, a nakedly cyn­ic­al hymn to con­sump­tion, tri­vi­al­ity and shal­low­ness. To be avoided at all costs.

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Review: The Tattooist, Premonition, Waitress and A Crude Awakening,

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

The Tattooist posterLike a cross between a bloodthirsty B‑movie and some­thing off the National Geographic chan­nel, New Zealand fea­ture The Tattooist struggles to marry the chills and thrills of a styl­ish low-budget hor­ror film, with a sens­it­ive intro­duc­tion to Samoan cul­ture, but comes very close to pulling it off.

Jake Sawyer (Jason Behr) is a troubled American tat­too artist, trav­el­ling the world ripping-off tra­di­tion­al designs. He ends up in Auckland with a stolen tat­too­ing tool which has unleashed an evil spir­it. Is it pun­ish­ing Jake for his dis­hon­esty or is there some­thing else going on?

Not all of it works, of course – detailed plot expos­i­tion is very tricky to pull off dur­ing a fist-fight – but, for the most part, I enjoyed it.

Premonition posterTalking of B‑movies, Sandra Bullock’s new thrill­er Premonition deserves a place some­where fur­ther down the alpha­bet. Sandy plays a self-absorbed house­wife whose hus­band dies in a car acci­dent. She wakes up the fol­low­ing day to find that it isn’t the fol­low­ing day at all, but three days pri­or and hus­band Julian McMahon is still alive. Believing that she has just had a bad dream, she wakes up the fol­low­ing morn­ing to find that it is now the day of the funer­al and one of her daugh­ters has ter­rible recent scars on her face.

This could all be prom­ising mys­tery mater­i­al if it was­n’t for the clunky and obvi­ous way the clues are laid out which makes it seem like The Sixth Sense remade for Sesame Street. But even that would­n’t be too dis­astrous it was­n’t for an end­ing that is so breath­tak­ingly inane that this review­er found him­self hat­ing the film for that ele­ment alone. Premonition will end up get­ting a decent life on video but I can­’t help think­ing that it will dis­ap­point every­one who rents it.

Waitress posterIn Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress, a cast full of well-known tele­vi­sion faces is gathered togeth­er in a Southern fable about liv­ing life to the full, or some rub­bish like that. Keri Russell (“Felicity”) plays pie-witch Jenna Hunterson, trapped in a mar­riage to boor­ish Jeremy Sisto (“Six Feet Under”) and a dead-end job in Joe’s Pie Shack (owned by “Matlock” him­self, Andy Griffith). Her only escape is her tal­ent for pies and, pos­sibly, hand­some Dr Pomatter (Nathan Fillion from “Firefly”). As inof­fens­ive as vapour and about as substantial.

A Crude Awakening posterIf ever a doc­u­ment­ary needed the help of Michael Moore it is A Crude Awakening, a deeply depress­ing exam­in­a­tion of the world’s depend­ence on oil (total), the like­li­hood of it run­ning out this cen­tury (high) and what we can do about it (not much). It’s a hugely import­ant sub­ject but the present­a­tion is as dry as dust which will pre­vent the mes­sage from get­ting very far. Besides, the ines­cap­able con­clu­sion is that an oil-free soci­ety will require a reduc­tion in the world’s pop­u­la­tion by around 4.5 bil­lion people mean­ing unima­gin­able misery for those left behind, and who wants to hear that?

Fireworks Wednesday stillMeanwhile, the vital and enga­ging Date Palm Film Festival gets a fifth run out at the Paramount. One great example: Fireworks Wednesday is a first-rate drama about a young girl in Teheran, about to be mar­ried, who goes to work as a maid for a middle-class fam­ily and dis­cov­ers that the grown-up world of mar­riage has many sur­prises in store.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 5 September 2007.

Full dis­clos­ure: Screenwriters of The Tattooist, Jonathan King and Matthew Grainger, were both judges for the Wellington 48 Hour Film Competition this year; I have been an unpaid con­sult­ant on the Date Palm Film Festival since the begin­ning, though nev­er involved with programming.

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: The Tattooist was an early Thursday morn­ing com­mer­cial screen­ing at Readings and I did miss the first ten minutes due to con­fu­sion on my part over start times; Premonition was at the same ven­ue about an hour and a half later; Waitress was at the Penthouse on Monday even­ing (staff screen­ing); A Crude Awakening was screened off a very high qual­ity time-coded DVD on Sunday night at home; Fireworks Wednesday was also a time-coded DVD pre­view screen­er viewed after get­ting home from Waitress on Monday night.

Review: The Bourne Ultimatum, Day Watch, Joy Division and The Singer

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

The Bourne Ultimatum posterIt’s Bourne-time again and rogue-agent Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is still try­ing to find out who he is, who erased his memory and why. A Guardian journ­al­ist (Paddy Considine) seems to know some­thing so he takes the Eurostar to London and with­in 15 minutes of arriv­ing the bod­ies are pil­ing up.

In a cun­ning (not to men­tion poten­tially con­fus­ing) screen­writ­ing coup the first two-thirds of Ultimatum actu­ally takes place ‘before’ the final 15 minutes of Supremacy (the pre­vi­ous sequel) and the two time-lines meet briefly before Ultimatum picks us up and takes us to the final, fas­cin­at­ing, reveal: of a plot (as the say­ing goes) ripped from the head­lines – and from post‑9/11 para­noid, punch-drunk, American for­eign policy.

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Review: The Italian, My Best Friend, No Reservations, Breach, The War Within and Black Snake Moan

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

The Italian posterReturning swiftly from the Festival is The Italian, a lovely and old-fashioned art-house win­ner about a six year-old Russian orphan played by the won­der­ful Kolya Spiridonov. He’s Vanya, a little urchin with soul­ful eyes who sees everything that goes on in his wretched Dickensian orphan­age includ­ing the cor­rup­tion, thiev­ery and abuse. The moth­er of his best friend makes a pathet­ic drunk­en appear­ance which gives him the idea that he, too, might have a moth­er. And, if he has a moth­er then there’s no reas­on why he can­’t find her so they can live togeth­er forever. Highly recommended.

My Best Friend posterMy Best Friend is one of those French films that sig­nals its gal­lic cre­den­tials with plenty of accor­di­on music (though falls short of gra­tu­it­ous Eiffel Tower shots like Orchestra Seats earli­er in the year). Ubiquitous Daniel Auteuill plays an antique deal­er who dis­cov­ers he has no friends but needs one to win a bet. He dis­cov­ers trivia buff taxi driver Dany Boon who seems to win friends effort­lessly and demands to know his secret.

And, like so many French films, the effete bour­geois gets life les­sons from the down-to-earth pro­let­ari­an (cf Conversations With My Gardener, still to return from the Festival) because the life of an intel­lec­tu­al is no life at all. If this was an American remake star­ring John Travolta and, say, Chris Rock we’d call it the rub­bish it is.

No Reservations posterTalking of rub­bish American remakes, No Reservations is a vir­tu­ally shot-for-shot recre­ation of the German hit Mostly Martha about an uptight female chef dis­armed by her 9 year-old niece and the vivid Italian chef she is forced to work beside. This is a vehicle for Catherine Zeta-Jones with sup­port from Little Miss Sunshine’s Abigail Breslin and talk­ing chin Aaron Eckhart and I’m sure most will find it unex­cep­tion­al; I des­pised its lazy com­pet­ence includ­ing the cyn­ic­al abil­ity to com­mis­sion a rare Philip Glass score and then dis­card it whenev­er the need for a cheap pop cue appears.

Breach posterBreach is a ter­ribly good, low-key, post-Cold War thrill­er anchored by a Champions League per­form­ance from Chris Cooper as real-life FBI trait­or Robert Hanssen who was caught and con­victed in February 2001 after 22 years selling secrets to the Russians. Helping nail him is rook­ie Ryan Phillippe who, at first, is seduced by his pious Catholicism and computer-nerdery before dis­cov­er­ing the com­plex and unusu­al man inside. Of course, while the FBI was put­ting every spare man-hour on the case of the mole with­in, sev­er­al Saudi stu­dents were learn­ing to fly planes in Florida so it was­n’t exactly the Bureau’s finest hour.

The War Within posterIn The War Within, Grand Central Station in New York is the tar­get of fic­tion­al Al-Qaeda ter­ror­ist Hassan who, like Derek Luke’s char­ac­ter in Catch a Fire a few weeks ago, is an inno­cent man rad­ic­al­ised by the bru­tal­ity around him. Very well made and pho­to­graphed (HD’s digit­al abil­ity to pro­duce vivid, sat­ur­ated col­ours well to the fore) on a mod­est budget. The War Within is almost cal­cu­lated to be of lim­ited interest to main­stream audi­ences but will cer­tainly reward those who seek it out.

Black Snake Moan posterIn Black Snake Moan, psychologically-damaged abuse-victim Christina Ricci goes off the deep end when boy­friend Justin Timberlake leaves their small Tennessee town to join the National Guard. Grizzled Blues vet­er­an Samuel L. Jackson chains her to a radi­at­or to save her from her­self but he has issues of his own, of course. Black Snake Moan gets bet­ter the more it trusts its char­ac­ters and, if you can get past the pulp shock value, there’s a good film inside.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times, Wednesday 23 August, 2007.

Some screen­ing notes: The Italian screened at home sev­er­al weeks ago on a time-coded DVD from the Film Festival; My Best Friend viewed from the too close front row of a packed Penthouse Three (the big new one) on 11 August; No Reservations seen at a vir­tu­ally empty staff and media screen­ing in Readings 8 at 9.15 on a Monday morn­ing (6 August); Breach watched this Monday (20 August) at the Empire in Island Bay who shouted me a free cof­fee after I bitched about the bus driver mak­ing me throw my first one away; The War Within screened at home on Saturday night from a gently water­marked DVD from Arkles, the dis­trib­ut­or; Black Snake Moan screened at the Paramount on Monday afternoon.

Full dis­clos­ure: I have done paid work in the past for Arkles Entertainment (dis­trib­ut­or of The War Within) and am design­ing their new web site which will be live next week.

Review: Eagle vs Shark, Ten Canoes, Die Hard 4.0, Sicko, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry and Destiny in Motion

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

Eagle vs Shark posterEagle vs Shark car­ries a great bur­den of expect­a­tion: Taika Waititi’s Oscar nom­in­a­tion, invit­a­tions to Sundance, inter­na­tion­al Miramax sup­port, point­less com­par­is­ons with Napoleon Dynamite. A film with less heart than this one could eas­ily col­lapse under all that weight but this Eagle soars.

Loren Horsley is Lily, a hope­less romantic with her heart set on Jarrod (Jemaine Clement) from the video game shop a few doors down. Unfortunately, Jarrod’s a dick but she sees some­thing in him and, over the course of a lovely and sad little film, teases it out des­pite all good sense telling her to run a mile. EVS is full of great (mostly small) com­ic moments and obser­va­tions and on the rare occa­sions when some­thing does­n’t quite work it’s easy to ride with it. A won­der­ful, unusu­al, soundtrack from The Phoenix Foundation, too.

Ten Canoes posterAlso not-to-be-missed is Ten Canoes, the first genu­inely indi­gen­ous film ever to come out of Australia. The Yolngu people of Arnhem Land in Northern Territory col­lab­or­ated with Rolf de Heer (The Tracker) to tell one of their own stor­ies – and tell it their own way – and the res­ult is beau­ti­ful and human and scata­logic­ally funny. A remind­er of what cinema can achieve when it is set free.

Die Hard 4.0 posterAfter a 12 year lay­off Bruce Willis finally returns to the role that cata­pul­ted him to super­star­dom (and off the top of sev­er­al explod­ing build­ings) in Die Hard 4.0 (also known as Live Free or Die Hard in coun­tries that still care about free­dom). The technology-terrorism premise might as well be flower-arranging for all the sense it makes, but it gets us to the meat which is John McClane being an ass, tak­ing a beat­ing and blow­ing stuff up. It pushes most of the right Die Hard but­tons, but in the end that’s all it man­ages to do – push buttons.

Sicko posterMichael Moore has been get­ting a hard time recently for all sorts of reas­ons (not mak­ing “prop­er” bal­anced doc­u­ment­ar­ies, not front­ing up to those who would turn his tac­tics back on him) but the cri­ti­cism is mis­guided. Moore isn’t really a doc­u­ment­ari­an – he’s a polemi­cist. In his eyes he’s fight­ing a war for the ordin­ary cit­izen against an entrenched and cor­rupt cap­it­al­ist super-state. Why should he ever have to fight fair? There is enorm­ous wicked­ness and injustice in this world and if it takes Moore and a few low-blows to help turn that around then I’m all for it. As it turns out, Sicko is the best of his films to date with few­er of the cheap stunts that arm his crit­ics and a finale in Cuba with some 9/11 res­cue work­ers that I found quite moving.

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry posterOf course, there are no great­er her­oes in our mod­ern age than New York fire-fighters which is why it was a smart move by Adam Sandler’s team to set their (ahem) sens­it­ive plea for tol­er­ance, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, among them. Larry (Kevin James) is a wid­ower and the City bur­eau­cracy won’t let him make his kids bene­fi­ciar­ies of his insur­ance. But if he goes to Canada and mar­ries his best friend Chuck (Sandler) he can some­how sort it all out. This is, of course, fraud and when they are invest­ig­ated the duo learn a lot about intol­er­ance as well as the, er, gay life­style choice. My favour­ite moment in a movie sprinkled with a hand­ful was the cameo appear­ance by closeted gay icon (and the first Jason Bourne) Richard Chamberlain as the judge at the hearing.

Finally, Te Radar is a micro-budget (and micro-scale) Michael Moore in Destiny in Motion, a thin doc­u­ment­ary about the birth of the Destiny New Zealand polit­ic­al party and the con­nec­tions (fairly obvi­ous) with Bishop Brian Tamaki’s Destiny Church. The irony of this exposé of pente­cost­al polit­ic­al manip­u­la­tion play­ing at the Paramount (a ven­ue that now turns into a happy-clappy Church every Sunday) was not lost on me.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday, 15 August, 2007.

Full dis­clos­ure: Like many people in Wellington, and the motion pic­ture industry, I count Loren and Taika as mates; I used to co-own the Paramount; Ten Canoes is dis­trib­uted by Richard Dalton at Palace/Fresh Films who is also a mate.

Review: Amazing Grace, Knocked Up and Year of the Dog

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

Amazing Grace posterWhile the Film Festival takes up a jus­ti­fi­ably huge chunk of time and mind­space dur­ing these two weeks the world of com­mer­cial cinema has hit back hard with two of the best films of the year.

Amazing Grace is a hand­some peri­od piece about the cam­paign­ing life of William Wilberforce, tire­less toil­er for social justice and what we now call human rights in the 19th cen­tury. The film focusses on his lead­er­ship of the move­ment to ban the transat­lantic slave trade in the teeth of entrenched com­mer­cial and polit­ic­al oppos­i­tion. 11 mil­lion African men, women and chil­dren were dragged from their homes, clapped in chains and forced to work in the plant­a­tions and refiner­ies that fuelled the British Empire.

Wilberforce is played by Mr Fantastic (or Captain Hornblower, if you prefer) Ioan Gruffudd and, des­pite his lack of heavy­weight cre­den­tials, he holds up nicely in com­pet­i­tion with some of British cinema’s finest. The Great Gambon (most recently Dumbledore in Harry Potter), Rufus Sewell (The Illusionist), Toby Jones (Infamous), Stephen Campbell Moore (The History Boys) and the mar­vel­lous Albert Finney all get moments to rise above the occa­sion­ally clunky, exposition-heavy, script.

Finney, in par­tic­u­lar, as the former slave-ship cap­tain John Newton who actu­ally wrote the hymn Amazing Grace (and the line “who saved a wretch like me” comes from deep inside a tor­tured con­science) is splendid.

Knocked Up posterEven bet­ter is Knocked Up, Judd Apatow’s bril­liant follow-up to The 40 Year Old Virgin. Supporting act­or in the earli­er film, Seth Rogen, gets pro­moted to the lead as Ben Stone, a fun-loving lay­about who gets his one night stand preg­nant and then learns the hard way about respons­ib­il­ity, adult­hood and love. Or you could say it’s about Katherine Heigl’s char­ac­ter Alison Scott, an ambi­tious report­er for the E! Channel who gets preg­nant to a one night stand and then learns the hard way about fam­ily, sac­ri­fice and pain.

Either way you choose it, Knocked Up is a won­der­ful film that shows a deep-seated love for life in all it’s gooey glory. The sup­port­ing cast are per­fect, includ­ing (the some­times patchy) Paul Rudd and Mrs Apatow, Leslie Mann, as the scary mar­ried couple our her­oes use to altern­ately inspire or repel each other.

Year of the Dog posterJudd Apatow made his name in tele­vi­sion, writ­ing and pro­du­cing shows like “The Ben Stiller Show” and the great “Freaks and Geeks”. Another “Freaks and Geeks” alumni, Mike White, also has a fea­ture out this week: Year of the Dog star­ring Molly Shannon. Shannon plays dowdy sec­ret­ary Peggy whose beloved dog Pencil dies in some­what mys­ter­i­ous cir­cum­stances leav­ing her alone to face the world.

In her attempts to replace Pencil with some­thing (anoth­er dog, a man) she learns a little bit about the world and an awful lot about her­self. Like Knocked Up there’s a contrast-couple, there to show our her­oes what life might be like if only they gave up being them­selves, in this case played by Laura Dern and Thomas McCarthy; and like Knocked Up there’s a lot of epis­od­ic com­edy moments though with a much dark­er edge.

Year of the Dog is White’s first fea­ture as dir­ect­or (after writ­ing films like Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl and The School of Rock) and it seems as if he has­n’t dir­ec­ted this film so much as writ­ten and pho­to­graphed it. That’s not to say that it isn’t enjoy­able – it is. It’s just not ter­ribly cinematic.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 25 July, 2007.

Nature of con­flict: Year of the Dog opens at the Academy Cinema in Auckland on Weds 1 Aug. I do con­tract work for them design­ing and main­tain­ing their website.