This week Philip Seymour Hoffman features in two new American sports movies, one about their most venerable — if not impenetrable — pastime of baseball and the other on the modern-day equivalent of bear-baiting, the presidential primaries. In Moneyball, Hoffman plays Art, team manager of the Oakland Athletics, left behind when his boss — Brad Pitt — decides to throw away decades of baseball tradition and use sophisticated statistical analysis and a schlubby Yale economics graduate (Jonah Hill) to pick cheap but effective players.
Hoffman steals every scene he is in but disappears from the story too early. Having said that, Pitt and Hill do great work underplaying recognisably real people and all are well-supported by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin’s script which has scene after scene of great moments, even if some of them lead nowhere (like poor Art’s arc). Moneyball might start out a sports movie but it’s actually a business textbook. If the place you work at clings to received wisdom, experience and intuition over “facts” then organise an outing to Moneyball as fast as you can.
Edmund (Skandar Keynes), Lucy (Georgie Henley) and their annoying cousin Eustace (played with gusto by young Will Poulter) arrive in Narnia to join the Dawn Treader on a search for the seven lords (and seven swords) who will finally unite all the warring countries and bring peace, etc., etc. All is much as you would expect from the previous installments, apart from the fact that Caspian (Ben Barnes) has lost that annoying vaguely Mediterranean accent and the talking mouse Reepicheep now sounds like Simon Pegg instead of Eddie Izzard.
Playing like the fever-dream of an obsessive teenager fallen asleep after reading a stack of Commando comics late at night, possibly after too much cheese, Inglourious Basterds is another contender for most entertaining film of the year. In a 17 year career that includes only six actual feature films (if you count Kill Bill as one), Quentin Jerome Tarantino has dedicated himself to proving that following the rules is a path made for fools and sissies. If only more filmmakers were listening.
QT himself has described Inglourious Basterds as a spaghetti western meditation on the war film and that’s as good a description as any, I suppose. In Chapter One we meet wicked Nazi “Jew hunter” Hans Lander (Christoph Waltz — a revelation) as he forces a nervous French dairy farmer to reveal the hiding place of a local Jewish family. It’s a great set-piece opening, tense but leavened with moments of absurdity and it gets you in the mood for the thrilling nonsense that is to come.
Australia (Evidently, modern Australia was built on racism, bigotry, corruption and alcohol). Not the debacle 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.
The 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(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 (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 (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 (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 (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 (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 (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 (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 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 (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.
Dollar for dollar (if not lb for lb) Vince Vaughan is the biggest star in Hollywood. For every dollar invested in a Vaughan film he returns fourteen making him a better bet than Cruise, Pitt, Clooney or Roberts. It’s easy to see why he’s so popular — his easy-going everyman quality annoys fewer people than Carrey and choices like Dodgeball and Wedding Crashers are pretty safe. Even last year’s Fred Claus was a rare watchable Christmas film and this year he repeats the dose with Four Holidays (aka Four Christmases).
Vaughan, and co-star Reese Witherspoon, are DINKs (double-income-no-kids) who maintain their cool lifestyle by avoiding their respective families like the plague. When an unexpected airport closure reveals their plans to party in Fiji instead of feeding the third world, they are obliged to make four different visits on Christmas Day, forcing them to confront the weirdos, sadsacks and dingbats that make up their respective families.
I think I’m out of step with most other critics (not unusual and not a bad thing) but I enjoyed myself watching Four Holidays — Vaughan and Witherspoon actually make a believable couple and the supporting cast (including fine actors like Robert Duvall and Kristin Chenoweth along with country stars Dwight Yoakam and Tim McGraw) has plenty of energy.
Ten years ago, before he became the darling of the Hollywood Hedge Fund set, Vaughan’s career nearly stalled when he played Norman Bates in Gus Van Sant’s ill-advised frame-for-frame remake of Psycho. After the seeing the trailer for Quarantine, I was half expecting it to give a similar treatment to the Spanish shocker [REC] (which prompted messy evacuations earlier in the year) but happily it diverges enough to merit its own review.
A tv crew is following an LA fire department for the night when they are sent to an apartment building where mysterious screams are emanating from one of the flats. Soon after they arrive, the authorities shut the building down to prevent the rabies-like infection from spreading, leaving the residents, fire-fighters and the media to their own devices.
Stronger in character development but slightly weaker in shock value, Quarantine will be worth a look if you found you couldn’t read the subtitles in [REC] because you had your hands over your eyes.
High School Musical 3: Senior Year is the first of the legendary Disney franchise to make it to the big screen but the formula hasn’t changed one bit. Well scrubbed High School kids in Albuquerque put on a show which might send one of them to Julliard. The music runs the full gamut of current pop music styles from Britney to the Backstreet Boys (without the spark of either) and the kids display a full range of emotions from A to B. HSM is betrayed by a lack of ambition married to relentless, obsessive, commitment to competence but, at almost two hours, I suspect it will be too long for most tween bladders to hold out.
Depression is a challenging topic for film (the symptoms are un-cinematic and recovery often takes the form of baby steps which are difficult to dramatise) but Swedish drama Suddenly makes a decent fist of it. Nine months after the car he was driving crashed, taking the lives of his wife and youngest son, eye doctor Lasse (Michael Nyqvist) is falling apart. After what looks like a failed suicide attempt, his parents advise him to take his remaining son (sensitive 15 year old Jonas played by Anastasios Soulis) to his holiday house for the Summer to see if he can take one last chance to heal himself and the family.
Lasse throws himself into repairing the beaten up old rowboat while Jonas falls for the (entirely Swedish looking blonde) local black sheep Helena (Moa Gammel). Despite the apparent energy of the title, Suddenly takes its time getting anywhere but rewards perseverance.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 10 December, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: I’m stoked to report that Suddenly was the first film I’d seen in the Vogue Lounge at the Penthouse since my disappointing experience with Smart People back in August and, despite some print wear, the presentation was perfect. Well done Penthouse.