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Review: Water Whisperers/Tangaroa, Vampires Suck, The Other Guys and three more ...

By Cinema and Reviews

Water Whisperers posterMy big beef with most eco-documentaries is the lack of hope. Whether it’s Rob Stewart (Sharkwater), Franny Armstrong (The Age of Stupid) or even Leonardo DiCaprio (The 11th Hour) most of these films go to a lot of trouble to tell you what’s wrong with the plan­et but leave us feel­ing help­less and depressed.

That’s why I like Kathleen Gallagher’s work so much. Her film last year, Earth Whisperers/Papatunauku told ten stor­ies of people who were mak­ing a dif­fer­ence, inspir­ing change and show­ing us that there are solu­tions as well as prob­lems. This year she has repeated the ton­ic, focus­ing on our water­ways and our rela­tion­ship with the sea: Water Whisperers/Tangaroa.

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Review: Watchmen, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, The Secret Life of Bees, Gonzo- The Life & Work of Hunter S. Thompson, Crazy Love and The Wackness

By Cinema and Reviews

Watchmen posterIt’s all about the adapt­a­tions this week and con­tender num­ber one is a film that deserves all the atten­tion it has been receiv­ing, even though it falls well short of its esteemed source mater­i­al. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is based on the greatest graph­ic nov­el of all time, Moore and Gibbons 1986 pre-apocalyptic mas­ter­piece which is one of the darkest por­traits of the mod­ern human con­di­tion ever rendered in the bold, flat col­ours of a com­ic book.

In a par­al­lel USA in which cos­tumed vigil­antes are real but out­lawed, the spectre of nuc­le­ar anni­hil­a­tion looms over a sup­posedly free soci­ety that is com­ing apart at the seams. One by one, some­body is dis­pos­ing of the retired her­oes and only masked sociopath Rorschach (who nev­er turned in his mask, revealed his iden­tity or stopped beat­ing up bad guys) deems it worthy of investigation.

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Review: Charlie Wilson’s War, Juno, Cloverfield, Meet the Spartans and The Jane Austen Book Club

By Cinema and Reviews

Charlie Wilson's War poster

The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Day in 1979. They remained in the coun­try, bru­tally sup­press­ing the loc­al res­ist­ance, until they were forced to leave in 1989: almost ten years of occu­pa­tion that des­troyed one coun­try and ruined anoth­er. One side of the story was told in the recent film The Kite Runner: in it we saw a vibrant and cos­mo­pol­it­an cul­ture bombed back to the stone age by the Soviets and their equally one-eyed Taliban replacements.

For peacen­iks like myself, the Soviet aggres­sion was an incon­veni­ent fact, dif­fi­cult to acknow­ledge dur­ing our efforts to pre­vent nuc­le­ar anni­hil­a­tion at the hands of war-mongerers like Ronald Reagan. While we were march­ing for peace and dis­arm­a­ment, play­boy Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) was secretly fund­ing the Mujahideen insur­gents to the tune of hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars, provid­ing them with the weapons that would bring down the Russians.

With the help of a reneg­ade CIA-man (won­der­ful Philip Seymour Hoffman), a Texan social­ite (Julia Roberts), an Israeli spy (Ken Stott) and President Zia, dic­tat­or of Pakistan (Om Puri), Wilson per­suaded, cajoled, threatened and coerced Congress to pay for all this – without them even know­ing what it was for. Aaron Sorkin’s script is razor-sharp, often very funny, and does a great job of not spelling out all the les­sons we should be learn­ing. Charlie Wilson’s War may have brought about the end of the Cold War but it also opened up Afghanistan to the bru­tal fun­da­ment­al­ism of the Taliban, increased the influ­ence of the Saudis in the region and indir­ectly led to the Iraqi poo-fight we are in now. As Wilson says, it’s all about the endgame.

Juno poster

How strange it is that two of my favour­ite films of the past twelve months should be about coming-to-terms with an unwanted preg­nancy. Knocked Up, last year, was a broad com­edy with a good heart and this year Jason Reitman’s Juno is even bet­ter: full of unex­pec­ted sub­tlety and nuance from a great cast work­ing with a tre­mend­ous script from gif­ted new­comer Diablo Cody.

Like last year’s Hard Candy, Ellen Page plays a pre­co­cious teen­ager only this time she is not a hom­icid­al revenge mani­ac. At only 16, she finds her­self preg­nant to the unlikely Paulie Bleeker (Superbads Michael Cera) and takes it upon her­self to find appro­pri­ate par­ents for the little sea mon­key grow­ing inside her. The rich couple who sign on (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) look per­fect, but looks can be deceiv­ing. Juno is an easy film to love and I can see people going back to it again and again.

Cloverfield poster

If a film has a good heart you can for­give its flaws, but what to do when it has no heart at all? Cloverfield is a modern-day retell­ing of a clas­sic Hollywood mon­ster movie and once again New York gets a ter­rible pound­ing. A group of self-absorbed yup­pies are caught in the carnage and try to escape but man­age to film the entire thing on their cam­cord­er. Yeah right. Technically admir­able, Cloverfield clev­erly main­tains the home video con­ceit but shaky-cam motion sick­ness got to me in the end.

Meet the Spartans poster

Meet the Spartans is all flaw and no redeem­ing fea­ture: anoth­er miss and miss spoof of last year’s hits. Soft tar­gets include “Ugly Betty”, “American Idol”, Paris Hilton (yawn) and 300. The Spartans were gay, appar­ently. And not in a good way.

The Jane Austen Book Club poster

The Jane Austen Book Club is a well-intentioned adapt­a­tion of the pop­u­lar nov­el about a group of women (and one dude) who meet once a month to talk about their favour­ite author. Writer and dir­ect­or Robin Swicord has assembled a fine ensemble cast includ­ing Maria Bello, Kathy Baker, Amy Brenneman and Jimmy Smits but too often they are rep­res­ent­at­ives of people rather than people them­selves and the film is un-persusasive. Actually, that’s not entirely true: the tent­at­ive rela­tion­ship between Bello’s inde­pend­ent hound breed­er and Hugh Dancy’s shy IT guru works nicely (for the most part).

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

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: Charlie Wilson’s War screened at a Reading Cinemas print check, 9am last Tuesday morn­ing (thanks, Hadyn), sit­ting in the com­fy Gold Lounge chairs; Juno screened on Sunday after­noon in Penthouse 1 (the ori­gin­al). It’s nice to see the Penthouse finally repla­cing the seats in Cinema 1 but per­haps they could think about repla­cing the sound sys­tem with some­thing that wasn’t salvaged from a tran­sist­or radio. Meet the Spartans was seen at a busy Saturday mat­inée at Readings where the brain-dead teen­agers around me hooted at every stu­pid, lame, joke. Cloverfield was in Readings digit­al cinema (Cinema 5) and looked sen­sa­tion­al. Digital really is the future and it can­’t come soon enough. I shud­der to think how ill I might have felt if I’d seen Cloverfield from a wobbly, scratchy print. The Jane Austen Book Club was the second part of a Penthouse double-feature on Sunday, this time in Cinema 3 (the new one) which is splendid.

Review: 300, The Namesake, Stomp the Yard, Vitus, TMNT and Meet the Robinsons

By Cinema and Reviews

300 posterOne of the bene­fits of a marginally-classical edu­ca­tion is that when someone makes a film about King Leonidas and The Battle of Thermopylae I have a vague idea what they’re on about before I go in but noth­ing could pre­pare me for the sheer vis­cer­al “total” film-making on dis­play in Zack Snyder’s extraordin­ary 300. Involving and repel­lent by turns, it’s a thrill­ing test­a­ment to full-on mas­cu­line male man­li­ness; unspeak­ably viol­ent of course but extreme in almost every oth­er way ima­gin­able too.

Based on Frank Miller’s $80-a-copy graph­ic nov­el (recre­ated frame for beau­ti­ful frame in many cases), 300 fol­lows Leonidas and his hand-picked Spartan army as they try to defend a dis­in­ter­ested Greece from a mil­lion Persians, their slaves, ele­phants and transexuals.

Leonidas is played with con­sid­er­able star-making cha­risma by Gerard Butler (Dear Frankie); Aussie David Wenham nar­rates as if he got punch in the throat as well los­ing an eye in the battle and the beau­ti­ful Lena Headey as Queen proves that Spartan women were made of the same per­fectly formed but psy­cho­lo­gic­ally incom­plete mater­i­al as the men.

The Namesake posterFresh from the Showcase, The Namesake is a lov­ingly rendered (if over­long) adapt­a­tion of the nov­el of the same name by Jhumpa Lahiri fea­tur­ing Kal Penn (giv­en name: Kalpen Modi), vet­er­an star of juven­ile rub­bish like Epic Movie and Van Wilder. Penn proves he really can act as Gogol Ganguly, New York-born Indian search­ing for an iden­tity that does­n’t involve his embar­rass­ing first name.

Stomp The Yard posterIn the ini­tially bewil­der­ing Stomp The Yard, Columbus Short plays DJ, a young hood­lum and gif­ted dan­cer who is giv­en one more chance after the death of his young­er broth­er in a dance-related brawl. That chance involves enrolling in Truth University, the legendary African-American centre of learn­ing and cul­ture where the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Michael Jordan set the highest alumni standards.

At Truth he finds his dan­cing skills are tested in the National Steppin’ Contest (a kind of team dan­cing unique to Black America) and his romantic skills are giv­en a tweak by the beau­ti­ful April (Meagan Good). I’m about as far away from the tar­get mar­ket for this film as can be ima­gined but, once I’d worked out that this dan­cing stuff was actu­ally ser­i­ous, I quite enjoyed it.

Vitus posterMeanwhile, Vitus is a little sweetie from Switzerland about a gif­ted child who des­per­ately wants to be nor­mal. A lovely per­form­ance from twinkly Bruno Ganz is worth the price of admis­sion and Teo Georghiu as 12-year-old Vitus really has the chops to make that old joanna sing. Remarkable.

TMNT posterFinally a couple of dis­pos­able items for the school hol­i­days: TMNT is actu­ally the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and it boasts video-game qual­ity anim­a­tion and a slum­ming Patrick Stewart on villain-voice-duty. I found the turtles really annoy­ing but, then again, they are teen­agers. It’s sort of the point.

Meet the Robinsons posterMuch more enter­tain­ing is Disney’s Meet the Robinsons, an anarch­ic affair that unlike oth­er anim­ated films has a kind of impro­vised qual­ity, boun­cing along chuck­ing jokes in ran­dom dir­ec­tions and a few of them stick. 12 year old orphan Lewis is a gif­ted invent­or des­per­ate for a fam­ily. When his latest inven­tion is stolen by mys­ter­i­ous Bowler Hat Guy, young hot-head Wilbur Robinson arrives from the future to help set things straight (and help Lewis find his mother).

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on 11 April, 2007.