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Review: Kung Fu Panda 2, The Company Men, Potiche and Bill Cunningham New York

By Cinema and Reviews

Kung Fu Panda 2 posterIt’s nice to be reminded every now and then that going to to the movies is sup­posed to be fun. The first Kung Fu Panda film was a bois­ter­ous and enter­tain­ing treat (“resembles an eight-year-old’s bed­room while they are throw­ing all their toys around” I said in 2008) and the latest ver­sion is an improve­ment on that, adding a lay­er of sen­ti­ment to the amus­ing hijinks. It also trucks along for a nothing-wasted 91 minutes and should keep adults and not-yet-adults well and truly amused.

Panda Po (Jack Black) became the unlikely Dragon Warrior in the first film and now has rock star status among the anthro­po­morph­ic cit­izenry. Along with allies “The Five”, he defends the inno­cent from tyranny in between (and often dur­ing) meals. A new tech­no­logy and a shad­owy fig­ure from Po’s past threaten the peace and force our hero to grapple with the strangely unanswered ques­tions about his child­hood and how a panda came to be adop­ted by a goose in the first place.

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Review: Eat Pray Love, Buried and The Town

By Cinema and Reviews

Eat Pray Love posterEat Pray Love is what they used to call, in the old days, a “women’s pic­ture” and the advert­isers who have paid good money to annoy audi­ences before the film make sure you know it: fem­in­ine hygiene products. A chro­mo­somal anom­aly on my part means that I’m not in the tar­get mar­ket for this film (or the best­selling book that inspired it) but I’ll give it a go. Manfully.

Julia Roberts plays Liz, a phe­nom­en­ally bad play­wright and (sup­posedly) suc­cess­ful author who has a crisis and ends her (sup­posedly) unsat­is­fact­ory mar­riage to bewildered and hurt Billy Crudup. Never hav­ing lived without a man in her life she goes straight into a rela­tion­ship with hand­some and spir­itu­al young act­or James Franco.

Still unhappy, and a source of enorm­ous frus­tra­tion to her eth­nic­ally diverse best friend Viola Davis (Doubt), she uses her share of the Crudup divorce to take a year off and find her­self – Italy for the food, India for the guru and Bali for Javier Bardem.

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“I was on the bottom of everyone’s list.”

By Asides, Cinema and TV

Jon Hamm (“Mad Men”) describes the life of a not-very-successful Hollywood act­or in The Guardian:

And there’s this hideous thing they make you do when you go up for a tele­vi­sion show: they make you sign a con­tract before you walk into the final audi­tion. The last thing they want is for you to have every­one fall in love with you, and then you not have a deal in place. So you sign this thing – and I had no money; I was broke. You’re star­ing at the five-figure pay cheque you’ll get… if… If! A crazy amount of money for someone who has none. So I was think­ing: I’ll pay my loans off and do this and that and maybe get my car fixed… and by that time they’re call­ing you in, you’re like: ‘Shit! I have to do the scene! What the fuck are the lines?’ I would get hung up on that stuff and be an utter fail­ure in the room.”

Hamm dis­plays an admir­able amount of self-awareness in this inter­view, pro­mot­ing his new fea­ture film The Town (dir­ec­ted by Ben Affleck). Part of Hamm’s suc­cess as Don Draper is the tiny amount of “I can­’t quite believe this is hap­pen­ing to me” he man­ages to project.

Hat-tip to The Story Department.

2008 comes to an end

By Cinema

Compelled once again by Christmas dead­lines to sum up the year in cinema, I have been think­ing a lot about how some movies stay with you and some don’t, how some movies have got aver­age reviews from me this year but have grown in my affec­tions, and how there are some films you want to see again and some you’re not so bothered about – even when you admire them.

So I’m going to divide my year up in to the fol­low­ing cat­egor­ies: Keepers are films I want to own and live with. Films I can expect to watch once a year – or force upon guests when I dis­cov­er they haven’t already been seen. Repeats are films I would­n’t mind see­ing again – rent­ing or bor­row­ing or stum­bling across on tv. Enjoyed are films I enjoyed (obvi­ously) and respec­ted but am in no hurry to watch again.

No Country for Old Men posterThe “keep­ers” won’t come as any great sur­prise: The Coen’s No Country for Old Men and PT Anderson’s There Will Be Blood were both stone-cold American mas­ter­pieces. NCFOM just about shades it as film of the year but only because I haven’t yet watched TWBB a second time. Vincent Ward’s Rain of the Children was the best New Zealand film for a very long time, an emo­tion­al epic. Apollo doco In the Shadow of the Moon moved and inspired me and I want to give it a chance to con­tin­ue to do so by keep­ing it in my house. Finally, two supremely sat­is­fy­ing music films: I could listen to Todd Haynes’ Dylan biop­ic I’m Not There. again and again, and watch­ing it was was much fun­ni­er than I expec­ted. Not mind­ing the music of U2, I did­n’t have a big hump to get over watch­ing their 3D con­cert movie, but what a blast it was! Immersive and involving, it was the first truly great digit­al 3D exper­i­ence. For the time being you can­’t recre­ate the 3D exper­i­ence at home so I hold out for a giant cinema screen of my own to watch it on.

Next lay­er down are the films I would­n’t mind watch­ing again, either because I sus­pect there are hid­den pleas­ures to be revealed or because a second view­ing will con­firm or deny sus­pec­ted great­ness. Gritty Romanian mas­ter­piece 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days has stayed with me since I saw it in March. Be Kind Rewind was rich enough (and good-hearted enough) to deserve anoth­er look. Martin McDonagh’s bizarre hit­man fantasy In Bruges rocked along at such a decent clip I need to see it again to make sure I did­n’t miss any of it’s eccent­ric pleas­ures. I liked and respec­ted the Coen’s oth­er 2008 entry Burn After Reading more than every oth­er crit­ic so a second view­ing would be use­ful, if only to con­firm that I appre­ci­ated it bet­ter than every­one else did… Or not.

Tropic Thunder posterIf I could just clip the Robert Downey Jr. bits from Tropic Thunder it would be a keep­er, instead I look for­ward to see­ing it again over Christmas. The same goes for the entire first act of WALL•E which I could watch over and over again. Sadly the film lost some of that magic when it got in to space (though it remains a stun­ning achieve­ment all the same).

Into the “Enjoy” cat­egory: Of the doc­u­ment­ar­ies released to cinemas this year, three stood out. The affec­tion­ate por­trait of Auckland theatre-maker Warwick Broadhead, Rubbings From a Live Man, was mov­ing and its strange­ness was per­fectly appro­pri­ate. Up the Yangtze showed us a China we could­n’t see via the Olympics jug­ger­naut and Young at Heart is still play­ing and should­n’t be missed.

The Edge of Heaven posterI made plenty of suc­cess­ful vis­its to the art­house this year. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was awe­some; The Edge of Heaven quietly enthralling; Irina Palm was sur­pris­ing. My review says I liked After the Wedding but I hardly remem­ber a thing about it. Also get­ting the art­house tick from me: The Counterfeiters, The Band’s Visit, the delight­ful hymn to tol­er­ance Grow Your Own and the glossy romance The Painted Veil.

Worthy indies that gave me faith in the future of US cinema included Ben Affleck’s Boston-thriller Gone Baby Gone; Ryan Gosling in love with a sex toy (Lars and the Real Girl); twee little Juno; nasty (in a good way) Choke; heart­warm­ing The Visitor and Frozen River (which was the best of the lot).

Space Chimps posterMainstream Hollywood was­n’t a com­plete waste of space this year (although the ghastly cyn­ic­al rom-coms 27 Dresses and Made of Honour would have you believe oth­er­wise). Ghost Town was the best romantic com­edy of the year; The Dark Knight and Iron Man were enter­tain­ing enough; I got car­ried away by Mamma Mia and the showstop­ping per­form­ance by Meryl Streep; Taken was ener­get­ic Euro-pulp; Horton Hears a Who! and Madagascar 2 held up the kid-friendly end of the deal (plus a shout-out for the under-appreciated Space Chimps) and, of course, Babylon A.D. (just kid­ding, but I did enjoy it’s campy insanity).

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 31 December, 2008.

Note that I delib­er­ately avoid choos­ing Festival-only films as dir­ect­ing people towards films they can­’t eas­ily see is just cruel.

Review: Gone Baby Gone, Shutter and Drillbit Taylor

By Cinema and Reviews

Gone Baby Gone posterIn 1997 two young hot­shots stunned the film world by win­ning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for their first pro­duced script. Since then, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have suffered cruel mut­ter­ings ever since: that they could­n’t pos­sibly have writ­ten such a good film by them­selves and that if they did why haven’t they writ­ten any­thing else? Added to the indig­nity is the con­stant rumour that Hollywood script guru William Goldman net­ted a mil­lion dol­lars for three weeks work punch­ing up Good Will Hunting on con­di­tion that he would forever deny it (which he denies).

In the 11 years since that win the career tra­ject­or­ies of Affleck and Damon have been pub­lic. Starring roles in block­buster suc­cesses, high-profile romantic liais­ons and (in the case of Affleck) a little bit of rehab. But there has been pre­cious little ori­gin­al cre­at­ive out­put from either party until the release of Gone Baby Gone, Affleck’s dir­ect­ori­al debut (also co-written), which reached Wellington this week.

Directing is a real test of a film­maker­’s chops. Unlike a fudged writ­ing cred­it you can­’t fake being on a set (although a great crew, DP and edit­or can often cov­er a mul­ti­tude of sins) but I’m thrilled to report that Affleck has pro­duced a work of genu­ine last­ing quality.

Based on a nov­el by Dennis Lehane, Gone Baby Gone is set in the same Boston mean streets that Will (from Good Will Hunting) grew up in. If you saw Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River (also from a Lehane story) or Scorsese’s The Departed you’ll be famil­i­ar with the geo­graph­ic­al ter­rit­ory, but Affleck’s eye is even more highly tuned to the neigh­bor­hood than those masters.

Four year old Amanda has been snatched from her home while her young single moth­er (sen­sa­tion­al Amy Ryan) was get­ting stoned at a bar. The Police led by Morgan Freeman (him­self suf­fer­ing the loss of a child) are strug­gling to get trac­tion from a com­munity sus­pi­cious of uni­forms. Young private invest­ig­at­or Patrick (Casey Affleck) and his part­ner Angie (Michelle Monaghan) are enlis­ted by the fam­ily to try and tease out some clues that would be unavail­able to law enforcement.

And that’s when it gets really inter­est­ing – because Affleck chooses to down­play the thrill­er (or pro­ced­ur­al) aspects of the piece in favour of char­ac­ter study and the unveil­ing of a ter­rible mor­al dilemma. And its a dilemma that remains per­fectly bal­anced right to the end where, like Bogart’s Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, our hon­our­able private eye is vir­tu­ally alone, forced to live with the unend­ing pain of doing the right thing.

Shutter posterThe pro­duc­tion line of asian-horror-remakes is still chug­ging along. The Eye (remake of a Hong Kong thrill­er) will be reviewed next week while Shutter (based on a Thai film called Shutter) has already been around a week or so. I find these things to be dread­fully tire­some for the most part, for­mu­laic and pre­dict­able. In Shutter a new­ly­wed American couple in Japan (Joshua Jackson and Rachael Taylor) find strange shad­ows appear­ing in their hol­i­day snaps. It turns out there’s a spir­it fol­low­ing them around, sneak­ing into their frames, spoil­ing their com­pos­i­tions. Well, their pho­to­graphy is about to be the least of their wor­ries. Shutter is laugh­able for the first two-thirds but res­cued by a well-manufactured dénoue­ment so I ended up not hat­ing it totally.

Drillbit Taylor posterOwen Wilson has been in the news more for his men­tal health issues than his act­ing in recent months but it is worth­while to be reminded that he remains one of the most watch-able act­ors of mod­ern times and the pleas­ant enough com­edy Drillbit Taylor comes to life whenev­er he is on the screen. He plays the eponym­ous Taylor, a mil­it­ary desert­er and bum who takes on the job of pro­tect­ing three nerdy kids from high school bul­lies. The kids are pretty funny too – like the kids from Superbad, only a few years younger.

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

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: This is the first all-Readings edi­tion of the weekly review since it com­menced back in October 2006.

Review: Rocky Balboa and more ...

By Cinema and Reviews

This week Wellington gets a chance to farewell one of the titans of world cinema, an inspir­a­tion to many, derided by a few; an icon who walked his own idio­syn­crat­ic path. I am, of course, talk­ing about Rocky Balboa, kind-hearted dim-bulb and pos­sessor of one of the great loves in cinema: his ador­a­tion of Adrian (Talia Shire) remains undi­min­ished even though her can­cer left him a wid­ower a few years between Rocky V and this new one.

Rocky Balboa posterThe Rocky of I and II was always a great char­ac­ter, led astray dur­ing the block­buster years, and Rocky Balboa gives him back to us. It’s well writ­ten and self-aware and, as a bonus, there’s hardly any box­ing in it.

A Prairie Home CompanionRobert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion is too nice a film to divide people the way that it does. Having said that, if you are one of those people who switches off National Radio whenev­er gen­i­al racon­teur Garrison Keiller Keillor intro­duces his legendary live radio show then you will find the film ver­sion an awful tri­al. Thrown togeth­er in typically-Altman, ram­shackle, style and shot, it appears, with no more than half an eye on the fin­ished product, APHC is a delight­ful, wist­ful, appre­ci­ation of com­munity, nos­tal­gia and the passing of time, the final­ity of things if you will. It’s only fit­ting that Altman’s final film, shot while he was riddled with the can­cer that would kill him, should be about let­ting go. I loved it, but then I was prob­ably always going to.

HollywoodlandIn Hollywoodland Ben Affleck is per­fect as wooden act­or George Reeves who found fame as tele­vi­sion’s first, portly, Superman in the 1950s but who ended up dead of appar­ently self-inflicted gun­shot wounds after a failed attempt at a comeback. The film brings life to the per­sist­ent rumours that Reeves’ death was the res­ult of foul play – cour­tesy of a jeal­ous hus­band with friends in Hollywood high places.

Adrien Brody plays a fic­tion­al gum­shoe on the trail of the mys­tery and the film tries hard to ride the coat-tails of clas­sics like Chinatown but is too darn slow to keep up, even though it looks the part.

Stranger than Fiction posterWill Ferrell plays a slightly less demen­ted ver­sion of his usu­al emotionally-retarded man-child in Stranger Than Fiction, a slender but like­able fantasy about a man who dis­cov­ers he is a char­ac­ter in a nov­el being writ­ten by Emma Thompson. It’s her voice in his head, nar­rat­ing his life, and no one else can hear it. This is annoy­ing and inex­plic­able at first, but gets ser­i­ous when he dis­cov­ers she wants to kill him off. Chicago looks great (and so does Maggie Gyllenhaal).

Squeegee Bandit posterRaucous kiwi doc­u­ment­ary Squeegee Bandit fol­lows Auckland street-corner win­dow wash­er “Starfish” around for a few months, get­ting to know him, his trans­it­ory life and his turf. There’s some inter­est­ing meat bur­ied inside this film but the MTV edit­ing, both­er­some soundtrack and gen­er­al noise levels make it harder than it should be to get at. It’s an inter­est­ing doc­u­ment­ary but dif­fi­cult to recom­mend as entertainment.

The Last King of Scotland posterThe Last King of Scotland is a fic­tion­al­ised por­trait of Idi Amin, dic­tat­or of Uganda from 1971 to 1979 and self-appointed “Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular”. To fully appre­ci­ate Forest Whitaker’s superb per­form­ance check out the real Idi’s eyes in the archive foot­age at the end of the film and you can see the genu­ine bat-shit insane para­noia of the man.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 14 February, 2007.