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Review: Show of Hands, Ghost Town, Be Kind Rewind, Mirrors, How to lose Friends & Alienate People, RocknRolla and And When Did You Last See Your Father?

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

Show of Hands posterAccording to the venerable IMDb.com, before Show of Hands the only feature films to be shot in New Plymouth were The Last Samurai (sort of) and something called Mad Mission 4: You Never Die Twice, so Anthony McCarten’s gentle little comedy-drama is already historic.

Showcasing the Taranaki landscape as well as the people, Show of Hands has an ambition as small as the town but, sadly, doesn’t bear up under too much scrutiny. A struggling car yard owner (Steven Stephen Lovatt) runs a hands-on-the-car promotion as a last ditch attempt to save his business and a handily representative cross-section of New Zealand society turns out to have a go.

The three main contenders are Melanie Lynskey’s single-mum (who needs the car to ferry her wheelchair-bound daughter about); Matt Whelan’s young trustafarian and Craig Hall’s cold-fish businessman who may or may not need the dough to solve his business problems or may or may not just be an ultra-competitive egotistical jerk. The whole film suffers from a similar lack of clarity which makes suspending disbelief a struggle. The acting is fine however and Whelan in particular is excellent — one for the future there.

Ghost Town posterCursed with a not-very-promising title, and a high concept premise (obnoxious dentist dies for seven minutes on an operating table and wakes up with the ability to see the ghosts of Manhattan), David Koepp’s Ghost Town turns out to be one of the mainstream pleasures of the year. I’m going to assume that every Hollywood rom-com with an English lead was written for Hugh Grant, but we can be grateful that he has all-but retired as it gives Ricky Gervais a meaty role which he grabs with both hands. Gervais may not have much range as an actor, but he does have depth and I found myself being unaccountably moved by a film that always delivers a little more than it says on the tin.

Be Kind Rewind posterIf the remarkable success of the 48 Hour Film Competition has proved anything in recent years it is that making films is now as much of a community experience as watching them and it’s that same hand-made, JFDI, aesthetic that Michel Gondry celebrates in the very special Be Kind Rewind.

While minding doddery Danny Glover’s ramshackle New Jersey video (and thrift) store, Mos Def discovers that all the precious VHS tapes have been erased by magnetic doofuss Jack Black. To save the business our heroes re-make the contents of the store using only a handycam and their ingenuity, eventually enlisting the whole town. I loved Be Kind Rewind and you’ll be honouring the spirit of the film if you see it at a theatre with a bunch of strangers.

Mirrors is yet another re-make of an Asian horror flick and there ain’t much water left in that particular well. Kiefer Sutherland plays a troubled NY ex-cop who takes a security guard job at an abandoned department store (Romanian and Hungarian studios plus a tiny bit of stock footage stand in for Manhattan). On his first night on the job the mirrors start to freak him out and two hours of excruciating exposition follow.

How to Lose Friends & Alienate People posterAlso shot on a European sound stage, though a second unit did make it through JFK to shoot some scenery, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People is an amiable little romp starring Simon Pegg as a try-hard English journalist trying to make it as a celebrity writer on a top New York magazine. Pompous yet insecure, Pegg’s Sidney Young (loosely based on author Toby Young whose book was itself loosely based on his own short Manhattan career) cuts a slapstick swathe through high society. Pegg is ok (but he’s no Ricky Gervais, see above) but Megan Fox as movie star Sophie has the worst skin I’ve ever seen on a Hollywood leading actress.

RocknRolla posterWriter-Director Guy Ritchie’s dreadful faux-cockney purple prose has been drooled all over the interminable RocknRolla, a boysie bit of rough and tumble that’s the cinematic equivalent of someone grabbing you around the neck and rubbing their knuckles into your skull. The sloppy plot involves a Russian oligarch’s lucky painting, an old school East End gangster on the way out, a rock star faking his own death and a big black ticket tout with a taste for Jane Austen.

Ritchie does have an eye for young talent (Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels made Jason Statham a star): look out for Toby Kebbell (the junkie rock star Johnny Quid) and Tom Hardy (Handsome Bob), just don’t look out for them in this.

And When Did You Last See Your Father? posterFinally, there’s not many films that wouldn’t be improved with the addition of the wonderful Jim Broadbent, and he really shines in And When Did You Last See Your Father?, a worthy brit-lit adaptation that also stars Colin Firth. Broadbent plays the father in question, a jovial egotist who doesn’t realise that his over-abundant joie-de-vivre is crushing the spirits of those around him. Firth is poet Blake Morrison, coming to terms with his father’s terminal illness with the help of plenty of flashbacks to his 60s childhood. Director Anand Tucker builds his case carefully until a splendidly moving finale draws a line under a very satisfying film.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 19 November, 2008.

Nature of conflict: I produced a couple of plays for Anthony McCarten back in the early 90s — “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and the revival of “Yellow Canary Mazurka”.

Notes on screening conditions: Ghost TownHow to lose Friends…RocknRolla and Mirrors were all at Readings public sessions (all fine except How to Lose Friends… was slightly out of frame meaning some of the titles spilled on to the masking); Be Kind, Rewind was at the Paramount and the first half was 20% out of focus and the whole film was about 20% too quiet; Show of Hands was a late night watermarked DVD from Rialto Entertainment and And When Did You Last See Your Father? was at the Embassy during the Film Festival back in July.

Review: In Bruges, Death Race, Nights in Rodanthe, Traitor, The Children of the Silk Road, Rubbings from a Live Man and Choke

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

Two hitmen (Gleeson and the excellent Colin Farrell) have been sent to the sleepy Belgian town of Bruges to lie low after a job has gone wrong. Once there, they are supposed to enjoy the many historic and cultural treats of the beautifully preserved walled medieval city while waiting for further instructions. This suits Gleeson (older, wiser, worldly) but Farrell, fractious after the terrible stuff-up, wants booze, birds, drugs and trouble. And even in Bruges he finds some of all of it.

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Review: WALL•E, Journey to the Centre of the Earth 3D, The Hollow Men, Earth, Step Brothers, Angus, Thongs & Perfect Snogging and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

By Cinema and Reviews

Back in the 70s, when I was about 8 years old, I watched a film on TV called Silent Running. In it Bruce Dern and three little robots tended the remains of Earth’s plant life on a giant greenhouse spaceship floating somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. I cried so much at the shocking ending (which had lonely robot Dewey, tending the forest with a battered watering can while the last of Earth’s flora drifted toward the edge of the solar system) that I don’t think I’ve ever been the same again. Last year, I rented the DVD to see if it had the same effect more than 30 years later and, sure enough, I dissolved on cue. Remarkable.

WALL•E posterPixar’s new animated triumph WALL•E owes a great deal to Silent Running, not least it’s dystopic view of human-planet interaction but also the faith in the healing power of anthropomorphic cuboid robots. WALL•E is the last functioning maintenance robot on an abandoned Earth, tidying up the enormous mountains of garbage left behind 700 years previously by the cowardly human population who ran for the stars. Lonely, without really knowing what lonely means, our hero meets EVE, a brilliant (as in shiny) search robot looking for signs of organic life. When she discovers some, and leaves to report back, WALL•E hitches a ride and ultimately finds himself saving civilisation.

It was perhaps a little too long for the restless pre-schoolers I shared a screening with, but for anyone and everyone else I whole-heartedly recommend it. And it won’t make you cry so much you throw up.

Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D posterRegular readers will know that I have been quite the cheerleader for the new digital 3D technology (the U2 concert was stunning). Sadly, the first “live action” film to be produced using the process, Journey to the Centre of the Earth 3D, is still more of a side-show stunt than a test of the artistic potential of the technology. Brendan Fraser plays a geologist whose brother was lost on an exploration in some Icelandic caves and when he discovers secret coded notes in his brother’s dog-eared copy of the Jules Verne book, he decides to recreate the expedition, taking his nephew (plus last week’s CT cover girl Anita Briem) along for the ride.

The Hollow Men posterAlister Barry is one of Wellington’s living treasures. His meticulously researched documentaries (including Someone Else’s Country and In a Land of Plenty) have successfully shone a light on the political and economic changes in New Zealand since the ‘new right’ transformation of the mid-80s in a way that nobody in the mainstream media has even attempted. His new film is based on Nicky Hager’s explosive exposé of shoddy National Party campaigning, The Hollow Men, and it’s interesting to me that the real-life footage of Don Brash presents a considerably less sympathetic portrait of the man than Stephen Papps’ excellent performance in the stage version at BATS. The leaked emails from Hager’s book revealed so many shenanigans that it’s hard to keep the story straight but Barry does a good job of emphasising that it is essentially the same team running National this time around.

Earth posterI was lucky enough to preview the gorgeous BBC nature documentary, Earth, at the Embassy during the Festival and I’m pleased to see it return there for a short season. Unlike the tedious and repetitive ice doco The White Planet, this film uses the whole planet as a canvas for some marvellous images and, like WALL•E, the message is that we are stuffing it up at an alarming rate. Only the cutest animals and most colourful plants got through the auditions and Patrick Stewart plays the Morgan Freeman part as narrator.

Step Brothers posterAfter dismal experiences with Will Ferrell’s recent ice-skating and basketball films I wasn’t looking forward to Step Brothers, a low brow reunitement (new word!) with Talladega Nights co-star John C. Reilly, but blow me down I really enjoyed it! Ferrell and Reilly play two 40-year-old men, living at home, whose solo parents meet and marry each other, making them, you guessed it Step Brothers. It’s a 90 minute riff on one joke but you have to admire their total commitment to it.

Angus, Things & Perfect Snogging posterAngus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging was made for teenage girls and I (despite my best efforts) am not one but, even though I lack the required cultural filters, I can’t understand why teenage girls would want to be portrayed as such shallow, tedious, screeching harpies. Boys, make-up, boys, the right kind of underwear, boys again. If these are our future leaders then I despair. Crikey, was Helen Clark like this when she was 14?

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days posterAll the girls in Angus, Thongs should be sat down and shown the extraordinary Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days so they can see what their single-minded obsession with boys and popularity is likely to get them. I’m stoked that someone has decided to release this film (after screenings at the World Cinema Showcase in April) as it is undoubtedly a stone-cold masterpiece, well-deserving the Palme D’Or it received at Cannes last year.

Profound, sensitive, emotionally arduous and perfectly structured, 4 Months follows a day in the life of student Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) as she selflessly tries to organise an abortion for her light headed friend Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), while fending off the attentions of family and boyfriend. As close to perfect as makes no difference.

Printed (for the most part) in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 24 September, 2008. Except for Earth, Step Brothers, Angus, Thongs, etc. and 4 Months which were cut for space.

Review: Rain of the Children, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and several more ...

By Cinema and Reviews

Rain of the Children posterArguably, the most important film of the year so far opens this week: Rain of the Children restores Vincent Ward’s reputation as a singular cinema artist, after the desperate travails of River Queen, and uses the essential New Zealand story of Rua Kenana and the Tuhoe resistance as vivid background to a universal story of parenthood and loss.

In this film Ward returns to the subject of his first documentary, In Spring One Plants Alone, a film he made as a naive 21 year old back in 1979. In that film we watched as 80 year old Puhi attempted to care for her last child, the mentally ill Niki. In Rain, Ward tells Puhi’s whole story — from her Urewera childhood, marriage to the prophet Rua’s son, and then the tragedies that bore down upon her until she (and the rest of her community) considered herself cursed.

The full emotional impact took a while to register with me — long enough that the tears didn’t start until half way through the credits. I’d need to see it again before making the call about “masterpiece” or not, but it certainly felt like that, standing numb in the Wellington rain after the Film Festival screening.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor posterI don’t know what I did to deserve the dubious pleasure of two Brendan Fraser action flicks in two days, but I can’t say I’m all that grateful. Journey to the Centre of the Earth will get it’s review next week but as for The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor the less said the better. The discovery of an abandoned tomb full of relics in western China brings Fraser and Maria Bello (subbing for Rachel Weisz) out of retirement just in time for the magical Eye of Shangri-La to bring evil Emperor Han (Jet Li) back to life. Li has never been the most expressive of actors and, luckily for him, he spends most of the film under a computer-generated mask of stone. It’s what we used to call a romp and is so stuffed with ‘stuff’ that it’s hard to argue that you don’t get your money’s worth, even if it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.

Taken posterTaken is highly effective, first-rate pulp starring Liam Neeson in the kind of role that Charles Bronson or Lee Marvin might have played back in the day. Neeson isn’t as cool as Marvin, but that’s ok as, by choosing to play his characters faults as well as his strengths, he gives the audience something to connect with (amidst all the violence and mayhem). He plays a retired spy, trying to reconnect with his family who have started over without him. A bit like De Niro in the Fockers films, he’s over-protective, cynical and paranoid but when his daughter is kidnapped by white slavers about an hour after arriving in Paris all his fears come true and only he can do the required rescuing.

Son of Rambow posterSon of Rambow pushes plenty of my 80s English nostalgia-buttons (”Screen Test”, cinemas split into smoking and non-smoking sections, Space Dust & Coke cocktails) but, despite that, I never quite managed to fall in love with it. 10 year old Plymouth Brethren-ite, Will (Bill Milner) discovers Stallone’s First Blood via pirate video and is persuaded by school terror Lee Carter (Will Poulter) to be the stuntman in his VHS-cam tribute. Too reliant on the fatherless-child cliché for its drama, and cartoon whimsy for its comedy, Son of Rambow never quite reaches the heights promised by its central idea.

Un Secret posterThere’s plenty of excellent drama still to be mined from the Holocaust, as Un Secret (from France) and Austrian Oscar winner The Counterfeiters prove. In the first film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’s Mathieu Amalric searches Paris for his father, while in flashback, he searches his family history for something to explain his own life. There are plenty of secrets to choose from, and one of the pleasures of the film is trying to work out which one is the secret of the title.

The Counterfeiters posterWhile Un Secret focuses on a family’s attempts to stay out of the camps, The Counterfeiters locks us inside with the inmates of Sachsenhausen and it’s a hell of a thing. Karl Markovics plays professional forger Sally Sorowitsch, enlisted by the Nazis to provide expert assistance for their attempts to flood the Allied economy with fake banknotes. Sally sees it as his opportunity to avoid the gas chambers but not everyone on the team shares his single-minded devotion to survival and he is forced to engage with his own lack of idealism.

Markovics’ remarkable cheekbones provide excellent architecture to inspire Benedict Neuenfels’ superb high contrast cinematography and The Counterfeiters is gripping, moving and provocative throughout.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 17 September, 2008.

Notes on screening conditions: For once, little to complain about. Rain of the Children as intimated in the body copy, was at a packed Film Festival matinée at the Embassy; The Mummy was also at the Embassy, although more recently, Taken was at Readings 2, courtesy of a pass from Fox, Son of Rambow (which was the cause of some consternation last week) was a torrent; Un Secret was screened from a preview DVD from Hoyts Distribution (due to the already alluded to Penthouse problems) and The Counterfeiters was in the big room at the Paramount where it was a little too quiet (not the end of the world with subtitles) and the print had definitely been around the block a few times.

Review: Hancock, Meet Dave, Mamma Mia! and The Love Guru

By Cinema and Reviews

Computer programmers have a concept called ‘garbage collection’ whereby useless and redundant items are automatically disposed of by ‘the system’. We film reviewers don’t have access to such technology, however, and are responsible for tidying our own rooms so, while all sensible cinephiles have their attention focused on the Festival, this column is playing catch-up with the commercial releases still playing in your local cineplex.

Hancock posterFirst up is Will Smith’s traditional 4th July epic, Hancock. All the major distributors know to steer well clear of Independence Day weekend as Smith totally ‘owns’ but that grip may loosen after his latest effort left many underwhelmed. But, what’s that you say? $453m worldwide gross? He turns out to be absolutely critic proof and I feel even more redundant than usual.

As a Smith admirer, I was terribly let down by Hancock. A promising first two acts in which the eponymous superhero-bum seeks redemption under the guidance of PR flack Jason Bateman turns to custard in a final third that seems to have been made up as they went along with poor Charlize Theron having to explain the nonsense plot in an embarrassing extended monologue over a hospital bed containing a dying Hancock. Total balderdash.

Meet Dave posterAlthough, not as awful as Meet Dave in which Eddie Murphy plays a spaceship that looks like Eddie Murphy, piloted by Eddie Murphy, walking stiffly around Manhattan looking for a lost orb that will steal all of Earth’s seawater and save the home planet. As bad as it sounds, if not worse.

Mamma Mia! poster

Much more fun, though very messy, is Mamma Mia!, the star-studded tribute to ABBA and platforms that, in it’s musical theatre incarnation, has romped around the stages of the world for nearly ten years. On a Greek island, Meryl Streep is preparing for her daughter’s wedding not realising that said daugter (Amanda Seyfried) has invited all three of her possible fathers (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard). All the ABBA hits are performed with considerable karaoke-style energy from the mostly non-singers and Streep provides a lesson for the likes of Robert De Niro that when you take on a frothy commercial comedy you don’t have to leave your talent in your trailer.

The Love Guru posterFinally, let us praise director Jay Roach who it would appear (on the evidence of Mike Myers’ new “comedy” The Love Guru) was the real talent behind the Austin Powers movies. Somebody with the unlikely name of Marco Schnabel directs this one and Myers produces, co-writes and stars in this facile vanity project about a self-help spiritualist who tries to become the new Deepak Chopra by saving the marriage of a star ice hockey player (Romany Malco) so he can then lead his team to “Stanley’s Cup”. The most diverting thing about this miss and miss affair is wondering why the Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t called the Toronto Maple Leaves — a mystery on a par with how this putrid and insulting effort ever got off the ground in the first place.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 23 July, 2008.

Notes on screening conditions: Hancock was at the Embassy. So was Mamma Mia! which was not done any favours by a damaged digital soundtrack on the print supplied by Paramount — very disappointing for a worldwide day & date release. Meet Dave was screened by the lovely people at the Empire in Island Bay. The Love Guru was only on at Readings in Wellington and they don’t supply media with comp tickets. Normally, I would work around that by seeing a film with Graeme Tuckett of the Dominion Post (or, hell, even borrowing his pass on occasion) but this time that wasn’t feasible with the Festival kicking off at the same time. So, I’m ashamed to say I downloaded it. Yes, I torrented a file that had originally been a preview DVD supplied by Paramount Pictures, with the watermark pixellated out. I would apologise except I’m waiting for Mike Myers to apologise to me first for making me watch it. And by the way, torrenting ain’t free — The Love Guru would have cost me a couple of bucks for the bandwidth and it wasn’t worth that.

Review: Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, The Tiger’s Tail, Kung Fu Panda and Speed Racer

By Cinema and Reviews

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead posterTwo films this week made by screen legends whose careers have settled in to something a little less than their glorious past. Sidney Lumet was making television drama when it was broadcast live from the studio in the 40s and 50s, and made the first (and best) version of courtroom drama 12 Angry Men in 1957. In the 70s he made some of the best of those gritty New York stories that defined the decade (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network) but his most recent work has passed under the New Zealand radar, his last two features not even getting a local release. To be honest I thought he was dead and figured that I must have missed his name pass by in one of those Academy Award salutes to the fallen.

Which makes Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead a lovely surprise: a gritty, R‑rated, heist-gone-wrong picture, set in those New York mean streets we seem to know so well (but also the verdant Westchester suburbs). Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke play two down-on-their luck brothers, young men whose character flaws render them inadequate to cope with the various pressures of modern living. Hoffman’s Andy is an ambitious real estate accountant (not a deal-maker but a wannabe player) with a drug habit and an embezzlement problem. Hawke’s Hank is divorced and struggling to pay the prep school fees and child support to his tough bitch ex-wife (Amy Ryan from Gone Baby Gone).

When Andy suggests that the robbery of a small suburban shopping mall jewellery store would be the answer to all their problems we are about to get one of the great set-ups for a thriller in modern memory and they are about to get in to a whole heap of trouble. Effortlessly switching perspectives and time-frames, Lumet proves that he hasn’t lost that ability to reveal human frailty by piling on the pressure. Totally recommended.

The Tiger's Tail posterThe other legend emerging from the shadows this week is English director John Boorman. He made Point Blank and Hell in the Pacific with Lee Marvin in the 60s, Deliverance and the batty Zardoz in the 70s, Excalibur and multi-Academy Award-nominated Hope & Glory in the 80s, but has been pretty quiet ever since. His new film The Tiger’s Tail is set in Dublin, where he now lives, and The Tiger of which he speaks is the “Celtic Tiger” of the economic boom.

Brendan Gleason Gleeson (stretching his legs) plays self-made property developer Liam O’Leary who, under pressure from the banks and corrupt politicians, starts seeing visions of a man who looks like himself, following him around. It turns out this fellow is his doppelgänger, bent on destroying the life Liam has built for himself and taking anything valuable to be found in the rubble. The “evil twin” story is one of the oldest in literature and it makes for a pretty lumpy metaphor here. Despite all the success and riches brought by the Irish Miracle, as Father Andy who runs the homeless shelter (Ciarán Hinds) says, “for every success, someone else has to lose”. Boorman’s direction is workmanlike but he retains that annoying habit of re-recording all the dialogue later using ADR, making it sometimes seem like you are watching a poorly-dubbed foreign film.

Kung Fu Panda posterKung Fu Panda is a boisterous and entertaining animated flick that resembles an eight-year-old’s bedroom while they are throwing all their toys around. The story makes no attempt at originality, hoping that the voice genius of Jack Black and the thrilling broad-brush animation will provide enough energy to carry you through (and for the most part it does). Black plays Po, a panda with dreams of kung fu glory. When Tai Lung (Ian McShane), the evil snow leopard, escapes from detention bent on revenge the search goes out for a new Dragon Warrior, for only a Dragon Warrior can defend the valley from such a menace. And so on and so forth.

Speed Racer posterFinally, in the annals of pointlessness a new chapter must be written and that chapter will be titled Speed Racer. I fell asleep during The Matrix at the Embassy in 1999 so The Wachowski Brothers have never managed to work their magic on me but even so, I have rarely felt so detached from a big screen movie as I did watching this adaptation of a (supposed) cult Japanese kids cartoon. In fact, I found myself pondering the total carbon footprint of the experience if you add the appalling cost of the film to my sitting in an empty, climate-controlled, theatre on a Monday morning to watch it.

Here’s a free idea to anyone interested — if you want to adapt a Saturday morning cartoon about motor racing, pick “Wacky Races” starring the great Dick Dastardly and sidekick Muttley. That is something I might pay to see.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 2 July, 2008. Sorry for the delay in posting but somehow I managed to get pretty busy this week.

No review to post this week (only Hancock released and Will Smith will do nicely without any help or hindrance from me) and next week I’ll be putting up my mammoth Wellington Film Festival preview (cross-posted to Wellingtonista).