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Review: The Master, Gangster Squad, Whole Lotta Sole, ParaNorman and To Rome With Love

By Cinema and Reviews

Between its her­al­ded US release in September last year and its arrival in a (very) lim­ited num­ber of New Zealand cinemas this week­end, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master seems to have been trans­formed from mas­ter­piece and annoin­ted Best Picture con­tender to also-ran, dis­ap­point­ing scores of loc­al PTA fans in the pro­cess, many of whom were crushed that we weren’t going to see the film in the director’s pre­ferred 70mm format. Turns out it was touch and go wheth­er we were going to see it on the big screen at all.

Anderson’s pre­vi­ous film, There Will Be Blood, was a close-run second to No Country For Old Men in my 2007 pick of the year, and his back cata­logue is as rich as any­one else of his gen­er­a­tion – Boogie Nights, Magnolia and even Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love. Like Blood, The Master is painted on a big can­vas. Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, an alco­hol­ic and self-hating WWII vet­er­an, stum­bling between mis­ad­ven­tures when he stows away on the San Francisco yacht com­manded by aca­dem­ic, author and mys­tic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd com­bines rudi­ment­ary psy­cho­ther­apy with hyp­nosis to per­suade gull­ible fol­low­ers that their past lives can be used to trans­form their dis­ap­point­ing present.

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Review: Julie & Julia, Food, Inc., Saw VI, Surrogates, Tyson, Monty Python- Almost the Truth and The Crimson Wing

By Cinema and Reviews

Julie & Julia posterBack before the days of “Iron Chef”, “Masterchef” and “Hell’s Kitchen”, television’s top food expert was a very tall, slightly ungainly, woman who soun­ded a little drunk. She was Julia Child and in the 60s she taught America how to cook. In an era where tv din­ners, pre-prepared sauces and easy cake mixes were top of a busy housewife’s shop­ping list, Child pro­duced the almighty tome Mastering the Art of French Cooking which went on to sell mil­lions of cop­ies and make her a legend.

A little later on, 2002 in fact, New Yorker Julie Powell star­ted an online pro­ject to repro­duce every recipe in the fam­ous cook­book (over 500 of them) in a single year. Nora Ephron’s new film Julie & Julia skil­fully merges the two stor­ies, freely not­ing the par­al­lels between them, and man­aging to pro­duce a warm and witty film that hon­ours the remark­able Child.

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Review: District 9, Sunshine Cleaning, The Man in the Hat, The Rocket Post and Case 39

By Cinema and Reviews

It’s going to be a massive few months for Wellywood – District 9 seems to have come out of nowhere to take the world by storm (Currently #35 in the IMDb All Time list, just below Citizen Kane. I kid you not) and The Lovely Bones trail­er is whet­ting everyone’s appet­ite at just the right time. This Friday, Wellington audi­ences are the first in the world to see a fif­teen minute sampler of the loc­ally shot Avatar (Readings from 11.45am, free of charge) and three more Film Commission fea­tures are due for release between now and Christmas: The Strength of Water, Under the Mountain and The Vintner’s Luck, all of which have a sig­ni­fic­ant Wellington com­pon­ent to them.

District 9 posterAnd if the Hollywood big cheeses were wor­ried about The Lord of the Rings shift­ing the tec­ton­ic plates of enter­tain­ment industry power they ought to be ter­ri­fied by District 9, a new world demon­stra­tion of the SANZAR spir­it (minus the Australians) that achieves in spades everything that this year’s big-budget tent-pole fea­tures like Transformers and Terminator failed to do. It works thrill­ingly as pure enter­tain­ment and yet at the same time it’s a little bit more.

Aliens have arrived on earth but unlike in the 70s and 80s they aren’t here to tell us how to con­nect with the uni­verse and expand our con­scious­ness. And it isn’t like the 90s when they arrived to car­a­mel­ize us with their death rays. These ali­ens have arrived for remark­ably 21st cen­tury reas­ons – their ship is crippled and with no way home they are destined to become refugees, out­casts, mis­un­der­stood second-class citizens.

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Review: Seven Pounds, Doubt and My Brother is an Only Child

By Cinema and Reviews

Seven Pounds posterThis week, three films which trade on a twist or rev­el­a­tion (to vary­ing degrees of suc­cess). First, Seven Pounds reunites the cre­at­ive team behind 2006’s excel­lent The Pursuit of Happyness and is this year’s annoy­ing entry in the “Will Smith Serious Movie Contest”. Smith plays the mys­ter­i­ous bene­fact­or Ben Thomas who appears to be look­ing for deserving strug­glers who need a help­ing hand (like a research­er for “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”) but as the cir­cum­stances are slowly unrav­elled a dark­er pic­ture emerges.

Put togeth­er with con­sid­er­able tal­ent and pas­sion by all con­cerned (sup­port­ing per­form­ances from Barry Pepper and Woody Harrelson are worth men­tion­ing), Seven Pounds suf­fers from a mad­den­ing script and, frankly, a totally mis­guided con­cep­tion which someone should have put a stop to much soon­er. Yet, it con­tin­ues to look beau­ti­ful, and the per­form­ances remain first rate, right up until the most lun­at­ic of loose ends are tied up and you are released once again, bewildered, in to the Wellington sunshine.

Seven Pounds is remin­is­cent of Iñárritu’s mas­ter­piece 21 Grams and is sim­il­arly about atone­ment – but the only atone­ment required here should come from screen­writer Grant Nieporte (whose most high-profile pre­vi­ous cred­it is an epis­ode of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”).

Doubt posterThere’s an example of real writ­ing on dis­play in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, an adapt­a­tion of his own stage play which was pro­duced at Circa last year. In the Bronx in 1964, a pro­gress­ive young Catholic priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is accused by har­rid­an head­mis­tress Meryl Streep of abus­ing 12-year-old pupil Donald Miller. In a series of lengthy scenes between Hoffman, Streep, wit­ness Sister James (Amy Adams) and the boy’s moth­er (little-known Viola Davis more than hold­ing her own in this heavy­weight com­pany) the invest­ig­a­tion is played out.

Only it isn’t really an invest­ig­a­tion – just a hunch fol­lowed by polit­ic­al and emo­tion­al man­oeuv­ring to pro­voke the down­fall of a pos­sibly inno­cent man. There are many com­plex­it­ies to take account of: Miller is the only black child in a school full of Irish and Italian kids, he’s a sens­it­ive soul look­ing for a fath­er fig­ure, Hoffman insists he is simply inno­cently tend­ing his flock. None of this is enough for the sour old Principal who believes her know­ledge of human nature trumps all.

When Doubt was play­ing on Broadway many crit­ics drew par­al­lels with the Bush II rush to war in Iraq, based on faith rather than facts (which Shanley hasn’t denied), but with a little dis­tance the broad­er implic­a­tions of faith versus doubt are allowed some air.

Shanley hasn’t dir­ec­ted a film since the under-appreciated Joe Versus the Volcano back in 1990 and he proves cap­able enough here, although the film nev­er really escapes the stage. But it’s an intel­li­gent, well-acted, thought-provoking little drama and we should be grate­ful for it.

My Brother is an Only Child posterThe most suc­cess­ful twist of the week comes in the unas­sum­ing Italian drama My Brother is an Only Child, a gen­i­al fam­ily drama, 60s com­ing of age story and polit­ic­al his­tory les­son. In the small indus­tri­al town of Latina, foun­ded by the fas­cists in the 30s and remain­ing sym­path­et­ic to Mussolini’s rule, two broth­ers com­pete polit­ic­ally and romantic­ally. Manrico (Riccardo Scamarcio) is the older Benassi broth­er, a fiery left­ist with a rov­ing eye. Younger broth­er Assio (Elio Germano) tries the sem­in­ary and fas­cism before wising up. Between the two boys is the beau­ti­ful Francesca (Diane Fleri), dis­tract­ing them both from the import­ant polit­ic­al mat­ters at hand.

When it comes, the twist is like a kid­ney punch, suck­ing all the air out of you. You’ve grown to like all these char­ac­ters with their pas­sion­ate, express­ive, emo­tion­al Italian-ness and by the end you find you really care – some­thing that the clever-clever Seven Pounds was nev­er likely to achieve.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 21 January, 2009.

I want to apo­lo­gise to reg­u­lar read­ers for the poor qual­ity of the prose in this week’s review. I knew it was pretty crappy when I sub­mit­ted it but the com­bin­a­tion of only one day in Wellington before dead­line meant I had to write it and send it before return­ing to work on Tuesday. It could def­in­itely have used an extra polish.

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 Golden Compass, Enchanted, Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Water Horse, National Treasure- Book of Secrets, I Am Legend, Sweet Land, The Kite Runner, Priceless and The Darjeeling Limited

By Cinema and Reviews

The Golden Compass posterKeen-eyed read­ers will remem­ber that a year ago I nom­in­ated The Golden Compass as my most-eagerly-awaited title of 2007. So, how did it pan out? I’m one of those who con­sider Philip Pulman’s His Dark Materials books to be the most import­ant works of fic­tion pro­duced in the last 20 years and I was sur­prised at how closely the film fol­lowed Book One (“Northern Lights”), pos­sibly to it’s det­ri­ment. I was wor­ried that a film with much expos­i­tion and detailed scene-setting might prove unwatch­able but my com­pan­ion (unfa­mil­i­ar with the books) found it thrill­ing where­as I found it hard to let myself go and relax into it – maybe second time around.

Enchanted poster Disney’s Enchanted saw Amy Adams reprise her Oscar-nominated wide-eyed naïf from Junebug. Unfortunately, as Princess Giselle from the anim­ated king­dom of Andalasia, she couldn’t over­come the col­lect­ive bland­ness of James Marsden as fictional-world love interest or Patrick Dempsey as real-world love interest; diver­sions were provided by Timothy Spall and the first of sev­er­al anim­ated chip­munks to land this Christmas.

Alvin and the Chipmunks posterThe next fluffy rodents to arrive were the “singing” trio from Alvin and the Chipmunks, a recre­ation of someone’s favour­ite child­hood pop butchers. Jason Lee is a waste of space as the song­writer who dis­cov­ers them but the little crit­ters them­selves will keep your inner 8‑year-old amused for a while.

The Water Horse posterAlso for the kids was the well-meaning but slightly po-faced Loch Ness mon­ster fantasy The Water Horse, anoth­er high-class product of the family-friendly Walden Media/Weta/NZ con­fed­er­a­tion. A tre­mend­ous over­seas cast led by Ben Chaplin and Emily Watson are joined by famil­i­ar and reli­able loc­al faces like Joel Tobeck and Geraldine Brophy.

National Treasure: Book of Secrets posterNational Treasure: Book of Secrets saw Nicolas Cage arise from his coma and make a little more of an effort than he did earli­er this year in Next: it’s a noisy romp in which unlikely char­ac­ters and implaus­ible situ­ations com­bine to bam­boozle any seeker after logic. Helen Mirren, Harvey Keitel and Ed Harris add gravitas.

I Am Legend posterWill Smith returned in the oft-made man alone thrill­er I Am Legend, a per­fect example of a poor script made pal­at­able by classy dir­ec­tion and a superb lead­ing man at the top of his game. Smith plays Lt-Col Robert Neville: dec­or­ated war vet­er­an, ace micro-biologist and (judging by his address oppos­ite the Washington Square Arch) heir to the Rockefeller for­tune too. A genet­ic­ally mutated vir­us that was sup­posed to cure can­cer has gone rogue. 99% of the pop­u­la­tion has died, 1% have turned into bloodthirsty zom­bies and only one man is immune – hand­ily for our pur­poses the one man who might know how to cre­ate a vac­cine. Lots of frights, lots of great action and a mag­ni­fi­cently seam­less cre­ation of aban­doned New York make it cer­tainly worth a look. At least until the last 15 minutes when, sadly, it just gets stupid.

Sweet Land posterFinally, to the art­house: Sweet Land is an unher­al­ded gem set in beau­ti­ful rur­al Minnesota among the Northern European immig­rants who were mak­ing their lives on that land in the first quarter of the last cen­tury. Elizabeth Reaser plays German immig­rant Inge who travels from Germany to meet Lars, the man who is to be her hus­band. But she speaks no English, has no papers and the loc­als are sus­pi­cious of Germans – the mar­riage is for­bid­den. True love con­quers all but not before the bit­ter sweet tale ties three gen­er­a­tions and the fer­tile farm­land togeth­er. Recommended.

The Kite Runner posterA monu­ment to the Digital Intermediate Colourist’s art, The Kite Runner is an adapt­a­tion of the beloved nov­el by Khaled Hosseini, dir­ec­ted by Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, cur­rently shoot­ing the new Bond). Affecting but manip­u­lat­ive, The Kite Runner is a story of guilt and redemp­tion (usu­ally cat­nip to me) but in the end it relied too much on out­rageous coin­cid­ence to be truly sat­is­fy­ing. Great per­form­ances from Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada as Young Hassan and Homayoun Ershadi as Baba mean it is nev­er less than watchable.

Priceless posterPriceless is yet anoth­er French film about mis­taken iden­tity and class restric­tions: they seem to be more obsessed about class and status than the poms. Gad Elmaleh (The Valet) and Amelie’s Audrey Tautou play two ambi­tious indi­vidu­als from the serving class: he walks dogs and tends bar at a flash hotel and she is a gold dig­ger try­ing to snare a rich old hus­band. The fact that both act­ors are of North African des­cent (and there­fore are excluded from the ranks of the real French who sit at the top table) is either a subtle stroke of geni­us or dodgy racism depend­ing on the degree of Christmas spir­it you want to demonstrate.

The Darjeeling Limited posterFinally, The Darjeeling Limited is a win­ning tale of lost young men, search­ing for a fath­er fig­ure, from the mod­ern day poet of fath­er fig­ure searches, Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic). There’s no great them­at­ic or styl­ist­ic leap made by Anderson here but he is hon­ing this stuff to a fine art. Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman are three broth­ers on a spir­itu­al jour­ney across India but it is the recently deceased fath­er who casts the longest shad­ow. Well made and often very funny, The Darjeeling Limited is very easy to enjoy and Anderson’s taste is exquisite.

To be prin­ted in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday, 16 Jan, 2008. I am tak­ing a week­end off, away from the Internet and cinema so will catch up with the week’s new releases next week.