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Review: Holiday Cinema Summary

By Cinema and Reviews

Australia posterAustralia (Evidently, mod­ern Australia was built on racism, bigotry, cor­rup­tion and alco­hol). Not the débâcle that some media would have you believe, Straya is an old-fashioned epic that looks right at home on the big Embassy screen. If only Baz Luhrman the dir­ect­or had more con­fid­ence in Luhrman the writer, he might have avoided some of the more OTT moments by let­ting a good story tell itself. The film also suf­fers from a lack of Russell Crowe (not some­thing you can say all that often). A rough­er, nas­ti­er per­form­ance would have suited the char­ac­ter of the Drover bet­ter but might also pro­voked some­thing a little less sim­per­ing from Nicole Kidman. Hugh Jackman is a fine enough act­or (and is neces­sar­ily Australian), he’s just tra­gic­ally miscast.

Benjamin Button posterThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt is born old and grows phys­ic­ally young­er all the while touch­ing the lives of the people around him). Other com­ment­at­ors have already made the obvi­ous com­par­is­ons between Benjamin Button and Forrest Gump, but the dis­ap­point­ment I felt on leav­ing the theatre was palp­able. Despite the evid­ent tech­nic­al mas­tery on dis­play and a win­ning per­form­ance by Brad Pitt, the film falls well short of its own expect­a­tions, in fact I would argue that Yes Man is actu­ally more profound.

Yes Man posterYes Man (Jim Carrey finds love and ful­fil­ment by not say­ing “no”). Proves that achiev­ing mod­est aims is often more sat­is­fy­ing than fall­ing short with more ambi­tious pro­jects. The pres­ence of Rhys Darby adds half a star and the won­der­ful Zooey Deschanel adds a whole extra one. Great indie soundtrack too.

Bolt posterBolt (TV hero dog dis­cov­ers he does­n’t actu­ally have super powers). The most fun of the hol­i­days can be found by slip­ping on the Readings’ polar­ized 3D glasses and enjoy­ing the Disney car­toon romp Bolt. Unlike the lead-footed Desperaux, Bolt zips along with plenty of visu­al and verbal pan­ache. The 3D isn’t too gim­micky and does the job of bring­ing you into the film (or if you prefer, mak­ing every­one else in the theatre disappear).

The Tale of Desperaux posterThe Tale of Desperaux (big-eared mouse res­cues Princess, saves king­dom). On Sunday the morn­ing, of those queued at the Empire in Island Bay 100% of the kids chose Bolt, 100% of the review­ers chose The Tale of Desperaux and the kids got the bet­ter part of the deal. Alone in the cinema I killed time by try­ing to work out which act­or’s voice I was listen­ing to: any­one know what William H. Macy sounds like?

Waltz with Bashir posterWaltz with Bashir (war vet­er­an inter­views old bud­dies to try and remem­ber a sup­pressed past). The best film of the hol­i­days actu­ally opened before the break but after my last dead­line of the old year. An anim­ated explor­a­tion of one of the many Israeli wars against their neigh­bours and the tricks played by memory, WWB has many images that linger in the mind, ready to re-emerge whenev­er I see a news­pa­per head­line about the cur­rent situ­ation in Gaza.

The Spirit posterThe Spirit (rook­ie cop is brought back to life with an eye for the ladies). You won’t have seen a film quite like The Spirit before, not one that was any good at least. A cross between the stark, CGI-noir of Sin City with the corny humour of the 60s Batman, if you’ve ever wanted to see Samuel L. Jackson camp­ing it up in full Nazi regalia this is the film for you. For the rest of us, not so much.

Bedtime Stories posterBedtime Stories (Hotel handy­man’s stor­ies for his neph­ew and niece come true the next day). The need for a PG rat­ing cramps Adam Sandler’s style some­what and the money the pro­du­cers obvi­ously saved on cine­ma­to­graphy went on some class Brit-actors includ­ing Richard Griffiths and Jonathan Pryce.

Twilight posterTwilight (Tale of a teen­age girl arriv­ing in a new town, befriended by, and then fall­ing in love with, the loc­al vam­pire). Evidently the Twilight young-adult nov­els are some kind of phe­nomen­on but I was more than mildly diver­ted by the cine­mat­ic ver­sion. I liked the sense of place (the cold and rainy Pacific North West) and the lack of urgency about the story-telling – tak­ing its own sweet time. The fact that the primary rela­tion­ship is between an adoles­cent girl and a 100-year-old man (no mat­ter how beau­ti­ful and young-looking) did man­age to creep me out though, more so than the ‘cradle-snatching’ in Benjamin Button.

Frost/Nixon posterFrost/Nixon (Famous inter­view saves Frost’s career and fin­ishes Nixon’s). A film of primary interest to 70s con­spir­acy the­ory buffs and act­ors look­ing for a mas­ter­class. Frank Langella does Richard M. Nixon per­fectly des­pite bear­ing little resemb­lance to the real per­son and Michael Sheen and Rebecca Hall add to their grow­ing repu­ta­tions. The Frost/Nixon inter­views had plenty of drama of their own but this film pads it all out with events and con­ver­sa­tions that did­n’t happen.

Vicky Christina Barcelona posterVicky Cristina Barcelona (Gap year American girls find love in Catalonia). There was a time when the name Woody Allen was a guar­an­tee of high-brow qual­ity and it’s a sign of the times that the excel­lent Vicky Cristina Barcelona is being sold to the pub­lic with no men­tion of his name at all. As it turns out VCB is pretty damn fine – a witty and intel­li­gent script that plays out like a deftly dram­at­ised New Yorker short story.

The Dinner Guest posterThe Dinner Guest (Simple couple turn posh to impress the new Boss). The French movies we get here seem to be more obsessed with class than any­thing from England and The Dinner Guest is no excep­tion. The twist in this case is that our her­oes are so uncul­tured they could be, I don’t know, English. Betrays its stage ori­gins so much so I might have been watch­ing it at Circa.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 14 January, 2008.

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: I am pleased to report that everything was well presen­ted (the print for Vicky Cristina Barcelona might have been a little too rough for the big Embassy screen). The digit­al 3D Bolt had some strange mask­ing issues which nobody at Readings could explain to me, and I only noticed dur­ing the clos­ing cred­its so no de-merit points apply.

Review: Frozen River, Pineapple Express and The Nightmare Before Christmas 3D

By Cinema and Reviews

It’s the weird­est coin­cid­ence. In two out of the three films I saw this week someone was shot in the ear. Seriously, go fig­ure. Since I star­ted this gig I’ve seen more than 400 films and no one has ever been shot in the ear and then, just like that, two come along at once.

Frozen River posterThat’s the only thing that con­nects two very dif­fer­ent but very good films: Courtney Hunt’s debut thrill­er Frozen River and David Gordon Green’s very funny Pineapple Express. Frozen River is being sold as a thrill­er, and it does have some very tense edge-of-your-seat moments, but it’s actu­ally a gritty drama about America’s rur­al poor with plenty of under­stand­ing and for­give­ness run­ning through its heart.

We open on a hard-faced woman’s tears. Melissa Leo plays Ray, whose hus­band Troy has giv­en in to his gambling addic­tion and scarpered with the balloon-payment on their new trail­er and it’s two days before Christmas. She’s bring­ing up her two chil­dren in a tiny trail­er down a muddy drive­way in a small town on the snowy bor­der between New York state and Quebec, work­ing part time in the Yankee Dollar store and try­ing to make ends meet.

Searching for the dead­beat hus­band at the loc­al, Mohawk-run, bingo hall she meets Lila Littlewolf who is driv­ing Troy’s aban­doned car. Lila (Misty Upham) is a depressed young woman, liv­ing in her own lonely trail­er, who intends to use the car to bring a few illeg­al immig­rants in to the coun­try, cross­ing the frozen river at the Indian reser­va­tion where the State Troopers can’t go. Needing money (and hav­ing rights to the car), Ray agrees to help, gambling everything she has on mak­ing a couple of trips so she can get her fam­ily through Christmas.

Gambling is the thread run­ning through the film – the First Nation Mohawk people fund their pro­grammes and main­tain their inde­pend­ence through gambling and the work­ing poor like Ray gamble every day that the few choices they have won’t see them fall­ing through the cracks in the ice – meta­phor­ic­ally or in reality.

A bril­liant debut, though not tightly-plotted enough to really qual­i­fy as a thrill­er, Frozen River is up there with 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days as an earn­est rep­res­ent­a­tion of people who would oth­er­wise be invis­ible to us.

Pineapple Express posterThe Apatow machine con­tin­ues to spew out fine com­edy. This year we have already had Drillbit Taylor, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Step Brothers and the latest is Pineapple Express, and if it’s not the Citizen Kane of stoner movies then it’s the Goodfellas. Written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (last year’s Superbad), this film is greatly enhanced by the pres­ence of a real film­maker behind the cam­era, George Washington’s David Gordon Green.

Rogen also stars as pot-head pro­cess serv­er Dale Denton, who wit­nesses a murder and, in his pan­ic, hides out with his deal­er Saul (James Franco). Unfortunately for both of them, this brings the wrath of the pot-mob down on both of them and they are chased across sub­urb­an Glendale by a mot­ley crew of ruf­fi­ans and hood­lums, all the while mak­ing good use of the herb that gives the film its title.

Rogen and Franco both came to pro­du­cer Judd Apatow’s atten­tion dur­ing the short-lived but well-loved tv show “Freaks & Geeks” (which also starred Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s Jason Segal) and their easy rap­port is a strength that gets the film through some of its shaki­er moments.

The Nightmare Before Christmas 3D poster Stocktaking the new digit­al 3D realm, we have now had an anim­ated ori­gin­al (Beowulf), a couple of con­cert movies (includ­ing the bril­liant U2), a live-action dud (Journey to the Center of the Earth) and now we see the res­ults when Hollywood goes back to the vault and re-masters an older film for the new tech­no­logy. The Nightmare Before Christmas from 1993 is an excel­lent intro­duc­tion to the pro­cess (if you haven’t been temp­ted before). It was always a vivid and ori­gin­al pro­duc­tion (watched over by Tim Burton) and the 3D really makes it pop.

Jack Skellington is the king of Halloween but is jaded and bored. Discovering Christmas-town, he decides that he wants Christmas all to him­self and hi-jacks it (kid­nap­ping Santa Claus in the pro­cess). Animated (using sim­il­ar stop-motion tech­niques to the Aardman films) by Henry Selick, Nightmare is won­der­ful to look at and not too long for kids, although if you have little tol­er­ance for music­al thee-ater no amount of glor­i­ous 3D will coun­ter­act Danny Elfman’s soundtrack. Me, I loved it.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 29 October, 2008.

Due to exams I skipped a week writ­ing for the CT so there was no sched­uled entry for 5 November. You haven’t missed any­thing. Now, I have to start catch­ing up on movies before I’m swamped by the Christmas rush. This year has gone by so fast.

Review: WALL•E, Journey to the Centre of the Earth 3D, The Hollow Men, Earth, Step Brothers, Angus, Thongs & Perfect Snogging and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

By Cinema and Reviews

Back in the 70s, when I was about 8 years old, I watched a film on TV called Silent Running. In it Bruce Dern and three little robots ten­ded the remains of Earth’s plant life on a giant green­house space­ship float­ing some­where between Mars and Jupiter. I cried so much at the shock­ing end­ing (which had lonely robot Dewey, tend­ing the forest with a battered water­ing can while the last of Earth’s flora drif­ted toward the edge of the sol­ar sys­tem) that I don’t think I’ve ever been the same again. Last year, I ren­ted the DVD to see if it had the same effect more than 30 years later and, sure enough, I dis­solved on cue. Remarkable.

WALL•E posterPixar’s new anim­ated tri­umph WALL•E owes a great deal to Silent Running, not least it’s dystop­ic view of human-planet inter­ac­tion but also the faith in the heal­ing power of anthro­po­morph­ic cuboid robots. WALL•E is the last func­tion­ing main­ten­ance robot on an aban­doned Earth, tidy­ing up the enorm­ous moun­tains of garbage left behind 700 years pre­vi­ously by the cow­ardly human pop­u­la­tion who ran for the stars. Lonely, without really know­ing what lonely means, our hero meets EVE, a bril­liant (as in shiny) search robot look­ing for signs of organ­ic life. When she dis­cov­ers some, and leaves to report back, WALL•E hitches a ride and ulti­mately finds him­self sav­ing civilisation.

It was per­haps a little too long for the rest­less pre-schoolers I shared a screen­ing with, but for any­one and every­one else I whole-heartedly recom­mend it. And it won’t make you cry so much you throw up.

Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D posterRegular read­ers will know that I have been quite the cheer­lead­er for the new digit­al 3D tech­no­logy (the U2 con­cert was stun­ning). Sadly, the first “live action” film to be pro­duced using the pro­cess, Journey to the Centre of the Earth 3D, is still more of a side-show stunt than a test of the artist­ic poten­tial of the tech­no­logy. Brendan Fraser plays a geo­lo­gist whose broth­er was lost on an explor­a­tion in some Icelandic caves and when he dis­cov­ers secret coded notes in his brother’s dog-eared copy of the Jules Verne book, he decides to recre­ate the exped­i­tion, tak­ing his neph­ew (plus last week’s CT cov­er girl Anita Briem) along for the ride.

The Hollow Men posterAlister Barry is one of Wellington’s liv­ing treas­ures. His metic­u­lously researched doc­u­ment­ar­ies (includ­ing Someone Else’s Country and In a Land of Plenty) have suc­cess­fully shone a light on the polit­ic­al and eco­nom­ic changes in New Zealand since the ‘new right’ trans­form­a­tion of the mid-80s in a way that nobody in the main­stream media has even attemp­ted. His new film is based on Nicky Hager’s explos­ive exposé of shoddy National Party cam­paign­ing, The Hollow Men, and it’s inter­est­ing to me that the real-life foot­age of Don Brash presents a con­sid­er­ably less sym­path­et­ic por­trait of the man than Stephen Papps’ excel­lent per­form­ance in the stage ver­sion at BATS. The leaked emails from Hager’s book revealed so many shenanigans that it’s hard to keep the story straight but Barry does a good job of emphas­ising that it is essen­tially the same team run­ning National this time around.

Earth posterI was lucky enough to pre­view the gor­geous BBC nature doc­u­ment­ary, Earth, at the Embassy dur­ing the Festival and I’m pleased to see it return there for a short sea­son. Unlike the tedi­ous and repet­it­ive ice doco The White Planet, this film uses the whole plan­et as a can­vas for some mar­vel­lous images and, like WALL•E, the mes­sage is that we are stuff­ing it up at an alarm­ing rate. Only the cutest anim­als and most col­our­ful plants got through the audi­tions and Patrick Stewart plays the Morgan Freeman part as narrator.

Step Brothers posterAfter dis­mal exper­i­ences with Will Ferrell’s recent ice-skating and bas­ket­ball films I wasn’t look­ing for­ward to Step Brothers, a low brow reunite­ment (new word!) with Talladega Nights co-star John C. Reilly, but blow me down I really enjoyed it! Ferrell and Reilly play two 40-year-old men, liv­ing at home, whose solo par­ents meet and marry each oth­er, mak­ing them, you guessed it Step Brothers. It’s a 90 minute riff on one joke but you have to admire their total com­mit­ment to it.

Angus, Things & Perfect Snogging posterAngus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging was made for teen­age girls and I (des­pite my best efforts) am not one but, even though I lack the required cul­tur­al fil­ters, I can’t under­stand why teen­age girls would want to be por­trayed as such shal­low, tedi­ous, screech­ing harpies. Boys, make-up, boys, the right kind of under­wear, boys again. If these are our future lead­ers then I des­pair. Crikey, was Helen Clark like this when she was 14?

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days posterAll the girls in Angus, Thongs should be sat down and shown the extraordin­ary Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days so they can see what their single-minded obses­sion with boys and pop­ular­ity is likely to get them. I’m stoked that someone has decided to release this film (after screen­ings at the World Cinema Showcase in April) as it is undoubtedly a stone-cold mas­ter­piece, well-deserving the Palme D’Or it received at Cannes last year.

Profound, sens­it­ive, emo­tion­ally ardu­ous and per­fectly struc­tured, 4 Months fol­lows a day in the life of stu­dent Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) as she self­lessly tries to organ­ise an abor­tion for her light headed friend Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), while fend­ing off the atten­tions of fam­ily and boy­friend. As close to per­fect as makes no difference.

Printed (for the most part) in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 24 September, 2008. Except for Earth, Step Brothers, Angus, Thongs, etc. and 4 Months which were cut for space.

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: Beowulf, The Heartbreak Kid, The Dead Girl, The Secret Life of Words, Bella and Nina’s Journey

By Cinema and Reviews

The Heartbreak Kid posterLet’s get the unpleas­ant­ness out of the way first: watch­ing The Farrelly Brothers’ ugly remake of Neil Simon’s The Heartbreak Kid was a tri­al bey­ond all human endur­ance. After about 20 minutes I was beg­ging for release (which came shortly after­wards as bliss­ful uncon­scious­ness over­took me). Sadly, no stu­dio exec­ut­ive will ever get fired for green-lighting a racy Ben Stiller romantic com­edy so no mat­ter how bad this one is it won’t be the last one we are forced to endure.

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