[pullquote]R‑rated these days appears to mean lots of unnecessary cursing and comic male nudity.[/pullquote]Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 was a surprise smash-hit in 2009 and his follow-up, Elysium, is what we call ‘eagerly awaited’. Watching it I was reminded of the great strengths of that first film: a vividly created future society, dysfunctional yet plausible; a great plot setup with a genuine dilemma for the central character. Then I remembered the third act of District 9 — one long fight/chase/fight. And so it proves with Elysium. Wasted potential as — like so many films this year — the film is resolved by who can punch harder rather than who can think better. I have lots of other problems with it but that’s the main one.
This week I’ve had my intelligence insulted by the very best. Steven Spielberg is credited as Executive Producer of Eagle Eye, but if he spent more than one meeting overseeing this crapitude I would be very surprised. Eagle Eye is designed to appeal to cro-magnons who still believe that computers are inherently malevolent self-perpetuating pseudo-organisms and that the US Dept of Defence would invent an all-powerful, surveillance super-computer that you can’t switch off at the wall. And fans of Shia LaBoeuf. Director D. J. Caruso (last year’s Disturbia) is confirmed as a name to avoid and Michael Jackson lookalike Michelle Monaghan has done (and will do) better than this (Gone Baby Gone).
In interviews, Rainn Wilson (Dwight Schrute in the American “Office”) has admitted that he is behind Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Jack Black, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson whenever the choicest scripts are handed out, so what that says about The Rocker (his first leading role) I’m not sure. Wilson plays a Pete Best-like drummer, fired from the band he named (Vesuvius!) just before they shot to stardom in 1988. Twenty years and twenty dead-end jobs later, he gets a shot at redemption playing with his nephew’s high school band. Wilson really doesn’t have enough presence to carry the film but he’s likeable enough and there’s some nice supporting work from Jeff Garlin (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) and the lovely Christina Applegate (who really deserves to be a much bigger star than she is).
One week on from the depressing Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging, there’s even more misplaced girl power on display in The House Bunny. Scary Movie star Anna Faris gets to executive produce a vehicle for herself (written by Laurie Craig and Karen McCullah Lutz, the female screenwriting duo responsible for the possibly Nobel Prize-winning Legally Blonde) and with that power comes great responsibility, responsibility that she puts to good use setting back the cause of feminism nearly 40 years.
Almost-Playmate Shelley (Faris), kicked out of Hef’s mansion for being too old becomes sorority house mother to a bunch of “ugly” misfits (including Emma Stone from The Rocker and Bruce Willis and Demi Moore’s eldest daughter Rumer). It’s the lack of ambition that I find so disheartening, although it did contain my favourite line of the week: “Concentrate on the eyes girls, remember — the eyes are the nipples of the face.”
Roald Dahl’s daughter Lucy is another female screenwriter stuck in cliché hell. Her script for Wild Child could have resulted in passable entertainment, but is let down by poor direction and some odd post-production decisions. Last year’s Nancy Drew, Emma Roberts, plays the fish out of water, Malibu rich-chick, sent away to an English boarding school run by firm-but-fair Natasha Richardson. There she makes friends and enemies and falls in love with handsome Roddy, played by the worst actor I’ve ever seen get his name on a major film: Alex Pettyfer (remember the name, folks).
Most fun of the week can be found in Space Chimps, a boisterous CGI-animated comedy for kids (and those that might find WALL•E a little too emotionally demanding). Ripping a long at a great pace, it has plenty of gags per minute and benefits from having great voice-actors like Patrick Warburton and Kristin Chenoweth involved rather than big name stars slumming it. Recommended.
The Russo-Sino-Co-pro Mongol really deserves to be seen on a giant screen, as befitting the giant landscape and giant story. The first of a proposed trilogy telling the life story of Genghis Khan, this instalment follows the 12th century warlord from his own birth to the birth of an empire spanning half the known world. Uniting the tribes of Mongolia was a brutal business and there’s plenty of CGI blood splashing around as young Temudjin (Tadanobu Asano) discovers his destiny.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday, 1 October 2008.
Above the proscenium arch at the Embassy theatre, on either side of the screen, there are two flashing red lights. They’ve been there ever since the Return of the King refurb and I thought they were something to do with the security system — motion sensors perhaps — but after watching Michael Bay’s Transformers on Friday night I got the idea that maybe they are eyes, you know, winking at us.
The Embassy as sentient sentinel — protecting us from evil, ready to transform at a moment’s notice into a giant robot with a really deep voice: as a vehicle for justice, its no more preposterous an idea than the muscle cars, hot rods, tanks and 18-wheelers featured in the film and it might explain that feeling of security I get sinking in to the leather seats.
In the film, Earth has become the battleground for two warring races of robots: the good guy Autobots and the not-so-much Decepticons. The cube that is the source of all their power is hidden somewhere here and the only clue is a pair of antique glasses in the possession of horny high school kid Shia LaBoeuf who the Autobots enlist to help. As you might expect with 30 metre tall robots, keeping their presence secret proves challenging and the attention of the authorities (including a very hammy John Turturro) is soon in full force.
Transformers is big and loud and mostly fun but the age of its target audience seems to change from scene to scene and the more-than-casual racism of the characterisations (every non-white character seems to be a buffoon or a coward or both) is a sour note, thankfully rare these days.
Equally white bread, but not quite as insulting, is the latest incarnation of the Nancy Drew stories about the famous teenage girl detective. This time Nancy is played by Julia Roberts’ niece (and creepy Eric’s daughter) Emma and while she’s got a little presence she doesn’t seem to totally know what she’s doing. It’s a fish-out-of-water story as Nancy leaves her small mid-western storybook town for the wilds of Los Angeles and anyone who has ever seen an episode of Scooby-Doo knows what’s going to happen next.
The ubiquitous James McAvoy (Last King of Scotland and Becoming Jane) plays Brian Jackson, a working class boy on his way to Bristol University in 1985, in Starter for 10. Determined to get the most out of the experience he trials for the University Challenge tv quiz team, getting a massive crush on the beautiful but shallow Eve in the process. His two best mates are played by two actors from The History Boys which, as they were set at the same time and much of the music is interchangeable, feels like you are watching a weird alternate universe at times. Recommended, but unchallenging.
Two minor entries from Europe to finish. Eden is a fable about a brilliant but lonely chef who falls for the unattainable waitress at his favourite café: Food porn with a surprisingly ugly twist at the end.
Colin Nutley’s Heartbreak Hotel is about two 40-something divorcées in Stockholm who strike up an unlikely friendship as they try and navigate the world of the newly-single. Heartbreak Hotel itself is the name of the nightclub they go to, a neon cocktail of the worst aspects of the Courtenay-Blair combination on a Wednesday night.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times, Wednesday 4 July, 2007 (Eden and Heartbreak Hotel cut for space, Starter for 10 moved to the Picks section for the same reason).