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Jobs poster

Review: Jobs, The Weight of Elephants, Red 2, White House Down, Salinger & In the House

By Cinema and Reviews

Demos Murphy in Daniel Borgman's The Weight of Elephants (2013)Jobs posterThe best way I can think of to sum up Jobs, the hastily-prepared not-quite adapt­a­tion of Walter Isaacson’s hastily-published bio­graphy of the Apple co-founder, is that its sub­ject would have hated it. After all, Steve had taste and – fam­ously – exer­cised it. He also did­n’t release products until they were ready where­as Joshua Michael Stern’s film feels like the win­ner of a race to be first rather than best.

Ashton Kutcher imper­son­ates Mr. Jobs effect­ively enough, to the extent of mim­ick­ing the man’s strange lope, but nev­er gets fur­ther under his skin than a blog post or tabloid head­line might. I sus­pect that is not a com­ment on Mr. Kutcher’s tal­ent but on the epis­od­ic script by first-timer Matt Whiteley. Josh Gad’s Woz provides com­ic relief only and the amount of fake facial hair on offer sug­gests the film might bet­ter have been titled iBeard.

The Weight of Elephants posterOperating on a much deep­er level is Daniel Borgman’s The Weight of Elephants, a film that pri­or­it­ises what goes on under the sur­face almost to the com­plete exclu­sion of plot. Gorgeous Demos Murphy plays 10-year-old Adrian, liv­ing with his depressed Uncle Rory (great Matthew Sunderland) and Gran (Catherine Wilkin) in sub­urb­an Invercargill. The strange dis­ap­pear­ance of three loc­al chil­dren has an upset­ting effect on a boy who is strug­gling to fit in to the world around him anyway.

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Review: The Red House, 21 & Over, Liberal Arts and Broken City

By Cinema and Reviews

The Red House posterAlyx Duncan’s The Red House is a lovely example of how ideas that evolve, adjust, trans­form over time can pro­duce work that is just as coher­ent and com­plete as if it arrived fully formed. Originally con­ceived sev­er­al years ago as a doc­u­ment­ary about her age­ing par­ents who were think­ing about leav­ing the house she grew up in and start­ing again over­seas, her film is now a poet­ic and impres­sion­ist­ic – as well as fic­tion­al – med­it­a­tion on place and belonging.

In the fin­ished film – unlike real life – Lee (Lee Stuart) fol­lows Jia (Meng Jia Stuart), his wife of 20 years, to Beijing where she has trav­elled to care for her own frail par­ents. He packs up the few belong­ings he is able to take with him from the years of assembled memen­tos, books and treas­ures, burn­ing much of what is left over. Voiceover from both char­ac­ters lets the audi­ence know how dif­fi­cult this trans­ition is, as well as telling the back­story of an unlikely – and lovely – relationship.

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Review: Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Wanted and two more ...

By Cinema and Reviews

Star Wars: The Clone Wars posterFrom the first bars of John Williams’ fam­ous fan­fare, played on a 1000 kazoos, you know The Clone Wars is going to be a cheap and cheer­ful, Saturday morn­ing car­toon level, rip-off of the Star Wars uni­verse and so it proves. Without par­ti­cip­a­tion of any of the ori­gin­al stars (except for game old Chris Lee as Dooku) and George Lucas’ involve­ment lim­ited to insist­ing that one char­ac­ter has the voice of Truman Capote, a minor epis­ode gets spun out well bey­ond it’s abil­ity to engage and enter­tain but it is quite amus­ing to be reminded that all the clones look like Tem Morrison. The tone is basic­ally “All Jar-Jar, all the time” but even your aver­age eight year old might won­der why it has to be so repetitive.

Wanted posterWhile it should­n’t be any great sur­prise to be intel­lec­tu­ally insul­ted by The Clone Wars, I was amazed to actu­ally be per­son­ally insul­ted by the cre­at­ors of comic-book action flick Wanted, dur­ing the summing-up voice-over at the end. Gentlemen, I am far from pathet­ic and the oppos­ite of ordin­ary and if your idea of a val­id per­son­al philo­sophy is to murder strangers because a magic loom told you to, then I’m pretty happy here on my side of that fence. Director Timur Bekmambetov proved with Night Watch and Day Watch that he has a thrill­ing per­son­al style but not much in the way of storytelling abil­ity which he con­firms with his first Hollywood stu­dio pro­duc­tion. Mr Tumnus, James McAvoy, plays nerdy accounts clerk Wesley who finds out he is the son and heir of the world’s best assas­sin. Aided by Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman he learns to shoot round corners and dis­cov­er an object­iv­ist sense of pur­pose that puts his own per­son­al free­dom and des­tiny above the lives of (for example) hun­dreds of inno­cent people on a train. Vile.

Death Defying Acts posterHarry Houdini was one of the 20th cen­tury’s legendary enter­tain­ers and in Death Defying Acts Guy Pearce renders him com­pletely without cha­risma which is a remark­able achieve­ment. The first great scep­tic, Houdini offers $10,000 to any­one who can tell him his beloved mother­’s final words. Stage mind-reader Catherine Zeta Jones sees a way out of poverty but finds her­self fall­ing in love instead. The lack of elec­tri­city (real or ima­gined) between the two leads hampers things some­what but the cam­era loves Saoirse Ronan (Atonement and the forth­com­ing Lovely Bones) so it isn’t a com­plete waste of time.

Up The Yangtze posterWhile China is front and centre of world atten­tion at the moment, the arrival in cinemas of Yung Chang’s excel­lent doc­u­ment­ary Up the Yangtze could­n’t be bet­ter timed. Taking us on a lux­ury cruise up a Yangtze river being slowly trans­formed by the epic (Mao-inspired) Three Gorges Dam pro­ject, the film man­ages to get more of China into it’s clev­erly layered 90 minutes than seems pos­sible. Teenage Yu dreams of going to University and becom­ing an engin­eer but her par­ents are illit­er­ate and dirt poor and have missed out on the com­pens­a­tion that would move them from their shack beside the river. So, against her will, she is sent to work on the cruise ship where she is giv­en the English name Candy and instruc­ted in the ways of mod­ern domest­ic ser­vice. Meanwhile, her par­ents struggle to find a new place to live and the river inex­or­ably rises.

When dis­cuss­ing glob­al warm­ing and car­bon emis­sions, we are often told that China opens a new coal powered power sta­tion every week which is evid­ently a bad thing. But, iron­ic­ally, when they build a renew­able hydro-electric scheme the West gets pretty snooty about that too. The pres­sures on China from all dir­ec­tions are keenly felt in this film, which will tell you more about that part of the world than three weeks of Olympic Games.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 20 August, 2008.

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: Star Wars: The Clone Wars was viewed at one of those excru­ci­at­ing radio sta­tion pre­views on Wednesday, 13 August (Readings). Wanted and Death Defying Acts were at Empire pub­lic screen­ings and Up the Yangtze was a pre­view screen­er DVD. I wish I had seen it at the Festival, though. I’m sure it would have looked very fine at the Embassy.

Review: The Italian, My Best Friend, No Reservations, Breach, The War Within and Black Snake Moan

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

The Italian posterReturning swiftly from the Festival is The Italian, a lovely and old-fashioned art-house win­ner about a six year-old Russian orphan played by the won­der­ful Kolya Spiridonov. He’s Vanya, a little urchin with soul­ful eyes who sees everything that goes on in his wretched Dickensian orphan­age includ­ing the cor­rup­tion, thiev­ery and abuse. The moth­er of his best friend makes a pathet­ic drunk­en appear­ance which gives him the idea that he, too, might have a moth­er. And, if he has a moth­er then there’s no reas­on why he can­’t find her so they can live togeth­er forever. Highly recommended.

My Best Friend posterMy Best Friend is one of those French films that sig­nals its gal­lic cre­den­tials with plenty of accor­di­on music (though falls short of gra­tu­it­ous Eiffel Tower shots like Orchestra Seats earli­er in the year). Ubiquitous Daniel Auteuill plays an antique deal­er who dis­cov­ers he has no friends but needs one to win a bet. He dis­cov­ers trivia buff taxi driver Dany Boon who seems to win friends effort­lessly and demands to know his secret.

And, like so many French films, the effete bour­geois gets life les­sons from the down-to-earth pro­let­ari­an (cf Conversations With My Gardener, still to return from the Festival) because the life of an intel­lec­tu­al is no life at all. If this was an American remake star­ring John Travolta and, say, Chris Rock we’d call it the rub­bish it is.

No Reservations posterTalking of rub­bish American remakes, No Reservations is a vir­tu­ally shot-for-shot recre­ation of the German hit Mostly Martha about an uptight female chef dis­armed by her 9 year-old niece and the vivid Italian chef she is forced to work beside. This is a vehicle for Catherine Zeta-Jones with sup­port from Little Miss Sunshine’s Abigail Breslin and talk­ing chin Aaron Eckhart and I’m sure most will find it unex­cep­tion­al; I des­pised its lazy com­pet­ence includ­ing the cyn­ic­al abil­ity to com­mis­sion a rare Philip Glass score and then dis­card it whenev­er the need for a cheap pop cue appears.

Breach posterBreach is a ter­ribly good, low-key, post-Cold War thrill­er anchored by a Champions League per­form­ance from Chris Cooper as real-life FBI trait­or Robert Hanssen who was caught and con­victed in February 2001 after 22 years selling secrets to the Russians. Helping nail him is rook­ie Ryan Phillippe who, at first, is seduced by his pious Catholicism and computer-nerdery before dis­cov­er­ing the com­plex and unusu­al man inside. Of course, while the FBI was put­ting every spare man-hour on the case of the mole with­in, sev­er­al Saudi stu­dents were learn­ing to fly planes in Florida so it was­n’t exactly the Bureau’s finest hour.

The War Within posterIn The War Within, Grand Central Station in New York is the tar­get of fic­tion­al Al-Qaeda ter­ror­ist Hassan who, like Derek Luke’s char­ac­ter in Catch a Fire a few weeks ago, is an inno­cent man rad­ic­al­ised by the bru­tal­ity around him. Very well made and pho­to­graphed (HD’s digit­al abil­ity to pro­duce vivid, sat­ur­ated col­ours well to the fore) on a mod­est budget. The War Within is almost cal­cu­lated to be of lim­ited interest to main­stream audi­ences but will cer­tainly reward those who seek it out.

Black Snake Moan posterIn Black Snake Moan, psychologically-damaged abuse-victim Christina Ricci goes off the deep end when boy­friend Justin Timberlake leaves their small Tennessee town to join the National Guard. Grizzled Blues vet­er­an Samuel L. Jackson chains her to a radi­at­or to save her from her­self but he has issues of his own, of course. Black Snake Moan gets bet­ter the more it trusts its char­ac­ters and, if you can get past the pulp shock value, there’s a good film inside.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times, Wednesday 23 August, 2007.

Some screen­ing notes: The Italian screened at home sev­er­al weeks ago on a time-coded DVD from the Film Festival; My Best Friend viewed from the too close front row of a packed Penthouse Three (the big new one) on 11 August; No Reservations seen at a vir­tu­ally empty staff and media screen­ing in Readings 8 at 9.15 on a Monday morn­ing (6 August); Breach watched this Monday (20 August) at the Empire in Island Bay who shouted me a free cof­fee after I bitched about the bus driver mak­ing me throw my first one away; The War Within screened at home on Saturday night from a gently water­marked DVD from Arkles, the dis­trib­ut­or; Black Snake Moan screened at the Paramount on Monday afternoon.

Full dis­clos­ure: I have done paid work in the past for Arkles Entertainment (dis­trib­ut­or of The War Within) and am design­ing their new web site which will be live next week.