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atonement

Review: Drive, In Time, One Day, Fright Night and The Inbetweeners Movie

By Cinema and Reviews

In Time posterExpat Kiwi auteur Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) some­how always man­ages to tap in to the zeit­geist and with new sci-fi thrill­er In Time his own tim­ing is almost spook­ily per­fect. A par­able about the mod­ern polit­ic­al eco­nomy, In Time isn’t a par­tic­u­larly soph­ist­ic­ated ana­lys­is but while protest­ors occupy Wall Street, St Paul’s in London and the City to Sea Bridge here in Wellington, it seems almost per­fectly cal­cu­lated to pro­voke a big Fuck You! to the bankers, spec­u­lat­ors and hoarders who are rap­idly becom­ing the Hollywood vil­lains we love to hate.

In Niccol’s world, sev­er­al dec­ades into the future, time is lit­er­ally money: human beings have been genet­ic­ally mod­i­fied to stop (phys­ic­ally) age­ing at 25. Which would be lovely apart from the fact that a clock on your writst then starts count­ing down the one year you have left to live and the time on your wrist becomes cur­rency. You can earn more by work­ing, trans­fer it to oth­ers by shak­ing hands, bor­row more from banks and loan sharks or you can spend it on booze to blot out the hor­ror of your pathet­ic little life.

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Review: The Edge of Love, The Orphanage, Babylon A.D., Sharkwater and Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?

By Cinema and Reviews

The Edge of Love UK posterKeira Knightley may only be 23 but (along with Daniel Craig and Simon Pegg) she’s been giv­en the unen­vi­able job of sav­ing the British film industry, a chal­len­ging task for someone with tal­ent but a hard road for a young woman still learn­ing a craft for which she often seems ill-suited. Next week we will review the mid-budget cos­tume drama The Duchess but right now she is head­lining anoth­er WWII romance (c.f. Atonement), John Maybury’s The Edge of Love.

Knightley plays Vera Phillips, a young Welsh girl carving out a liv­ing enter­tain­ing the troops in the under­ground bomb shel­ters of burnt out London. In an awfully clunky screen­writ­ing moment she sees a famil­i­ar face across a crowded pub and calls out “Dylan? Dylan Thomas?” and is reunited with her child­hood sweet­heart. After plenty of flirt­ing, the soon-to-be great poet Thomas (Matthew Rhys) intro­duces her to his wife Caitlin (Sienna Miller) and a firm friend­ship begins, a friend­ship that veers in the dir­ec­tion of a (hin­ted at) mén­age à trois and ends (with the help of Phillips’ shell-shocked hus­band Cillian Murphy) in a hail of mis­dir­ec­ted bul­lets on a pic­tur­esque Welsh cliff top.

Miller’s notori­ous tabloid exist­ence has a tend­ency to over­shad­ow her day job, which is a shame as she is very good here and she car­ries almost all the emo­tion­al weight of a film that, frankly, needs all the help it can get. Rhys is fine (and reads the Thomas poetry like he’s chan­nel­ling Richard Burton) but Knightley struggles, although she has her moments.

The Orphanage posterIn The Orphanage, a woman (Belén Rueda) and her hus­band (Fernando Cayo) decide to buy the decay­ing old goth­ic orphan­age where she grew up so they can live there with their adop­ted, HIV-positive, young son (Roger Princep) plus his ima­gin­ary friends. Asking for trouble? You bet. The boy soon dis­ap­pears, per­haps into a cave beneath the house, and the dis­traught moth­er has to solve the mys­tery of the cursed house before she can find him again.

I would have been con­sid­er­ably more effected by this film if the first half hadn’t been out of focus (and if the pro­jec­tion­ist hadn’t for­got­ten about the reel change or needed to be told to focus the second half) but once we’d got all that sor­ted out the moody atmo­spher­ics (greatly aided by an effect­ive sur­round sound design and the excel­lent Paramount sound sys­tem) push all the right but­tons. Produced by Guilermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), The Orphanage is styl­ish hor­ror with a heart. I much prefer this sort of thing to the Japanese pro­duc­tion line ver­sions we see so often.

Babylon A.D. posterIt’s really say­ing some­thing when a dir­ect­or dis­owns a Vin Diesel film for not liv­ing up to his vis­ion but this is what Mathieu Kassovitz has done with Babylon A.D. Apparently studio-dictated cuts have turned his subtle and sens­it­ive polit­ic­al and mor­al allegory into a bloodthirsty shoot ’em up. As they say­ing goes, yeah right. Freely rip­ping off dozens of hit films (from Escape from New York to Blade Runner, The Matrix and Resident Evil), the cuts have rendered what might have been a campy clas­sic into inco­her­ence but it’s not un-entertaining.

Sharkwater posterMy favour­ite cine­mat­ic shark is Bruce from Finding Nemo (played by Barry Humphries), a mis­un­der­stood killing machine with aban­don­ment issues. If he’d seen Rob Stewart’s ener­vat­ing doc­u­ment­ary Sharkwater he would know that he’s not a killer at all – more people die each year as a res­ult of Coke machine mis­ad­ven­ture – and that he is in far great­er per­il from us than the oth­er way around.

In fact the whole film owes a lot to Pixar’s Nemo, often recre­at­ing fam­ous images from that film and, if it wasn’t likely to trau­mat­ise them, I’d recom­mend every child who ever saw Nemo be forced to sit and watch it so they might turn into pas­sion­ate eco-terrorists when they grow up.

Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? posterAs agit-prop doco makers go I think I prefer Morgan Spurlock to Michael Moore. Spurlock (who sprang to fame with the McDonalds’ exposé Super Size Me in 2004) inter­views people without set­ting them up to look stu­pid or venal and his every­man open-ness gives the impres­sion that he is genu­inely curi­ous rather than embittered and cer­tain. In Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? Spurlock is spurred by the his long- suf­fer­ing girl­friend Alex’s preg­nancy to go the middle east and find out why they want to kill us all. And if he finds Osama Bin Laden in the pro­cess, all well and good. I could have done with less of the cheesy video game ana­lys­is of com­plex glob­al polit­ics but when Spurlock goes out of his way to meet ordin­ary people on the streets of Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, Pakistan and Afghanistan you can’t help but feel a little bit enlightened and a little bit heartened.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 8 October, 2008.

Nothing of note to report regard­ing screen­ing con­di­tions except the prob­lems with The Orphanage that have already been repor­ted above.

UPDATE: A friend wrote to me after read­ing the Sharkwater review in the CT:

I don’t think much of your Sharkwater review. It really does­n’t tell any­one what the film is about and why people should see it, and secondly you totally belittle the issue by com­par­ing it to a kids car­toon! It’s the most dis­turb­ing film I’ve seen all year, and as you know I’ve seen quite a lot. Even now I feel utterly guilty eat­ing fish, though it is the only anim­al flesh I can­’t seem to give up. At least the Lumiere review­er urged people to boy­cott the many Wellington res­taur­ants that serve shark fin soup. The dir­ect­or is slightly irrit­at­ing I admit, but the con­tent is cru­cial… you can­’t joke about films like this, unless it’s garbage (like Where in the World is OBL for example…).

In case you did­n’t get it the first time read this: http://www.panda.org/index.cfm?uNewsID=146062
Glad I got that off my chest…”

Cinema: Best of 2007

By Cinema

And so, after 191 films viewed and reviewed here I get to sum up the 2007 cinema year. As I said back in September it’s been a great year for good films but a poor year for truly great ones. Even my (obvi­ously unim­peach­able) Top Ten list con­tains only a few that I think will be regarded as clas­sics in 20 years but these are all films that I’d hap­pily see again or even own on DVD if the chance arises.

Into the Wild posterBest of the year turns out to be the most recent: Sean Penn’s Into the Wild is the real deal. As beau­ti­ful to look at and listen to as the finest art film, but remain­ing down to earth, it fea­tures a star-making per­form­ance from Emile Hirsch lead­ing an ensemble of fine screen act­ors and it ulti­mately deliv­ers a mes­sage that is com­pletely dif­fer­ent to the one you expect: He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.

Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait posterThe next two selec­tions are also not­able for being the lowest-grossing films of the year: the mes­mer­ising Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait fol­lowed one man around a foot­ball pitch for an entire match and the won­drous and glow­ing abori­gin­al film Ten Canoes reminded us that great story-telling can be found any­where, from the camp fire to the mul­ti­plex. The finest per­form­ances of the year from grown-ups were found in Sarah Polley’s Away From Her. Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie were a couple reel­ing from the impact of Alzheimer’s: the pres­sure of the dis­ease slowly unrav­el­ling a rela­tion­ship that on the sur­face seemed so pure. Best per­form­ance of the year from any­one was little Kolya Spiridonov as “orphan” Vanya in The Italian, determ­ined to find his Mother wherever she may be rather than go to the west with new parents.

Deep Water posterBest doc­u­ment­ary turned out to be the unprom­ising Deep Water: a film about a yacht race that ended up being about the deep­est, darkest secrets kept by a fra­gile human soul – it was even bet­ter second time around. Atonement was a sweep­ing and romantic drama show­cas­ing the many skills of the latest gen­er­a­tion of British movie craftspeople, not least dir­ect­or Joe Wright who, annoy­ingly, is only 36 years old. Best loc­al film in an uneven year (and jus­ti­fi­ably in this Top Ten) is Taika Waititi’s Eagle vs. Shark: funny and sweet and sad and the product of a sin­gu­lar vis­ion rather than the com­mit­tee that seems to pro­duce so many New Zealand films.

Knocked Up posterMy favour­ite com­mer­cial film of the year was the sweet-natured and very funny Knocked Up about a slack­er and a career-girl get­ting to grips with respons­ib­il­ity, rela­tion­ships and par­ent­hood: He tangata, he tangata, he tangata once again. Finally, I’ve spent all year try­ing to jus­ti­fy leav­ing Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver out of this Top Ten with no luck what­so­ever: the com­plete lack of flaws of any kind mean it gets in des­pite the fact that I didn’t love it like I did some others.

It’s a tough time for loc­al paper film review­ers around the world. Cinema crit­ics from pub­lic­a­tions like the Village Voice have been giv­en the flick by penny-pinching pub­lish­ers and even the Sunday Star-Times in Auckland has star­ted run­ning film reviews from sis­ter papers in Australia rather than pay someone loc­ally to rep­res­ent you. So, I feel incred­ibly for­tu­nate to be able to watch all these films on your behalf and want to thank the Capital Times for indul­ging my desire to cov­er everything rather than a select few releases. Thanks, also, to all the Wellington cinemas who have gra­ciously hos­ted me des­pite my fairly con­stant bitch­ing about stand­ards. But, above all, thank you for read­ing. See you next year.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday January 2, 2008.

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.