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Review: Watchmen, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, The Secret Life of Bees, Gonzo- The Life & Work of Hunter S. Thompson, Crazy Love and The Wackness

By Cinema and Reviews

Watchmen posterIt’s all about the adapt­a­tions this week and con­tender num­ber one is a film that deserves all the atten­tion it has been receiv­ing, even though it falls well short of its esteemed source mater­i­al. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is based on the greatest graph­ic nov­el of all time, Moore and Gibbons 1986 pre-apocalyptic mas­ter­piece which is one of the darkest por­traits of the mod­ern human con­di­tion ever rendered in the bold, flat col­ours of a com­ic book.

In a par­al­lel USA in which cos­tumed vigil­antes are real but out­lawed, the spectre of nuc­le­ar anni­hil­a­tion looms over a sup­posedly free soci­ety that is com­ing apart at the seams. One by one, some­body is dis­pos­ing of the retired her­oes and only masked sociopath Rorschach (who nev­er turned in his mask, revealed his iden­tity or stopped beat­ing up bad guys) deems it worthy of investigation.

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Review: The Dark Knight

By Cinema and Reviews

The Dark Knight posterBack in 1986 Frank Miller single-handedly rein­ven­ted the Batman fran­chise in book form with “The Dark Knight Returns”, a four-part mini-series which saw an age­ing Bruce Wayne come out of retire­ment one last time to fight the scourge of law­less­ness that beset his beloved Gotham City. Fans have waited in vain for that story (dark, cyn­ic­al, epic and power­ful) to arrive on the sil­ver screen but Christopher Nolan’s cur­rent ver­sion of the hero (intro­duced in Batman Begins in 2005) is still head­ing in the right dir­ec­tion, even to the extent of crib­bing Miller’s title for this second episode.

In The Dark Knight we join the action not long after the end of the pre­vi­ous film. The forces of Gotham City law enforce­ment (with the help of the masked vigil­ante and a few unfor­tu­nate copy cats in hockey pads) are squeez­ing the city’s organ­ised crime syn­dic­ates and clean­ing up the city. Only psy­cho­path­ic freakazoid The Joker (Heath Ledger) seems to be able to act with impun­ity and he offers the Mob a deal: he’ll dis­patch the fly­ing bat in exchange for half their business.

Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) still hankers after beau­ti­ful Asst DA Rachel Dawes (this time played by Maggie Gyllenhaal repla­cing Katie Holmes) who prom­ised they could be togeth­er if he could ever give up his double-life. The arrival on the scene of hand­some and prin­cipled District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) as legit­im­ate crime-fighter (a “white knight”) might just give him a way out, only Dent is also in love with Rachel. Meanwhile, The Joker’s plot to des­troy Batman strikes closer and closer to home.

Despite being more than 20 minutes longer than it needs to be, The Dark Knight is a suc­cess­ful attempt to bal­ance the thrills and spills of a mod­ern day block­buster with some­thing a little more psy­cho­lo­gic­ally demand­ing. Nolan has claimed that there is very little digit­al effects work in the film and that he tried to shoot as much of the action as real as pos­sible and it pays off – there must have been some digit­al in there but (apart from Dent’s aston­ish­ing and grot­esque trans­form­a­tion into Two-Face) I could­n’t pick any.

It is dis­ap­point­ing that Nolan’s vis­ion of Gotham City from the first film seems to have faded. Instead of the hyper-modern city in dis­repair we got last time, now it looks like plain old mod­ern day New York crossed with Chicago crossed with Toronto, and I guess that was one of the sac­ri­fices made in the decision to ditch digit­al but the city itself is well short on atmosphere.

Bale, as ever, leaves this review­er cold, but the sup­port­ing play­ers are all fine act­ors in great form (par­tic­u­larly Michael Caine as Alfred, the former Special Forces but­ler). Ledger is tre­mend­ous and provides hints of the kind of lib­er­at­ing work he might have been cap­able of had he lived, although talk of a posthum­ous Oscar seems excess­ive. After all, since Cesar Romero in the 60s The Joker has been a license to ham and this ver­sion spe­cific­ally is sup­posed to be all show and no depth.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 31 july, 2008. Sorry, I am so behind with post­ing. I’ll try and get this week’s edi­tion up before the end of the weekend.

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: The Dark Knight screened at a sur­pris­ingly busy Monday morn­ing ses­sion at Readings. And when I say “sur­pris­ingly busy” I mean over 100 people. At 11.00am!

Review: 300, The Namesake, Stomp the Yard, Vitus, TMNT and Meet the Robinsons

By Cinema and Reviews

300 posterOne of the bene­fits of a marginally-classical edu­ca­tion is that when someone makes a film about King Leonidas and The Battle of Thermopylae I have a vague idea what they’re on about before I go in but noth­ing could pre­pare me for the sheer vis­cer­al “total” film-making on dis­play in Zack Snyder’s extraordin­ary 300. Involving and repel­lent by turns, it’s a thrill­ing test­a­ment to full-on mas­cu­line male man­li­ness; unspeak­ably viol­ent of course but extreme in almost every oth­er way ima­gin­able too.

Based on Frank Miller’s $80-a-copy graph­ic nov­el (recre­ated frame for beau­ti­ful frame in many cases), 300 fol­lows Leonidas and his hand-picked Spartan army as they try to defend a dis­in­ter­ested Greece from a mil­lion Persians, their slaves, ele­phants and transexuals.

Leonidas is played with con­sid­er­able star-making cha­risma by Gerard Butler (Dear Frankie); Aussie David Wenham nar­rates as if he got punch in the throat as well los­ing an eye in the battle and the beau­ti­ful Lena Headey as Queen proves that Spartan women were made of the same per­fectly formed but psy­cho­lo­gic­ally incom­plete mater­i­al as the men.

The Namesake posterFresh from the Showcase, The Namesake is a lov­ingly rendered (if over­long) adapt­a­tion of the nov­el of the same name by Jhumpa Lahiri fea­tur­ing Kal Penn (giv­en name: Kalpen Modi), vet­er­an star of juven­ile rub­bish like Epic Movie and Van Wilder. Penn proves he really can act as Gogol Ganguly, New York-born Indian search­ing for an iden­tity that does­n’t involve his embar­rass­ing first name.

Stomp The Yard posterIn the ini­tially bewil­der­ing Stomp The Yard, Columbus Short plays DJ, a young hood­lum and gif­ted dan­cer who is giv­en one more chance after the death of his young­er broth­er in a dance-related brawl. That chance involves enrolling in Truth University, the legendary African-American centre of learn­ing and cul­ture where the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Michael Jordan set the highest alumni standards.

At Truth he finds his dan­cing skills are tested in the National Steppin’ Contest (a kind of team dan­cing unique to Black America) and his romantic skills are giv­en a tweak by the beau­ti­ful April (Meagan Good). I’m about as far away from the tar­get mar­ket for this film as can be ima­gined but, once I’d worked out that this dan­cing stuff was actu­ally ser­i­ous, I quite enjoyed it.

Vitus posterMeanwhile, Vitus is a little sweetie from Switzerland about a gif­ted child who des­per­ately wants to be nor­mal. A lovely per­form­ance from twinkly Bruno Ganz is worth the price of admis­sion and Teo Georghiu as 12-year-old Vitus really has the chops to make that old joanna sing. Remarkable.

TMNT posterFinally a couple of dis­pos­able items for the school hol­i­days: TMNT is actu­ally the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and it boasts video-game qual­ity anim­a­tion and a slum­ming Patrick Stewart on villain-voice-duty. I found the turtles really annoy­ing but, then again, they are teen­agers. It’s sort of the point.

Meet the Robinsons posterMuch more enter­tain­ing is Disney’s Meet the Robinsons, an anarch­ic affair that unlike oth­er anim­ated films has a kind of impro­vised qual­ity, boun­cing along chuck­ing jokes in ran­dom dir­ec­tions and a few of them stick. 12 year old orphan Lewis is a gif­ted invent­or des­per­ate for a fam­ily. When his latest inven­tion is stolen by mys­ter­i­ous Bowler Hat Guy, young hot-head Wilbur Robinson arrives from the future to help set things straight (and help Lewis find his mother).

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on 11 April, 2007.