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Review: Four Holidays, Quarantine, High School Musical- Senior Year and Suddenly

By Cinema and Reviews

Four Holidays posterDollar 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.

Quarantine posterTen 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 posterHigh 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.

Suddenly posterDepression 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.

Review: Burn After Reading, Body of Lies and The Duchess

By Cinema and Reviews

Burn After Reading posterOh, what kind of year is 2008 that has two Coen Brothers films within it? In February I was swooning over No Country for Old Men and now, just a few short months later, I’ve been treated to Burn After Reading, a scathing and bitter comedy about modern American ignorance. It’s a vicious, savage, despairing and brilliant farce: full of wonderful characters who are at the same time really awful people.

John Malkovich is Osbourne Cox, a failed CIA analyst who loses a disk containing his memoirs. It’s found by Hardbodies gym staff Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt, who decide to blackmail him so that she can pay for some unnecessary cosmetic procedures. Meanwhile (and there’s a lot of meanwhiles), Malkovich’s wife (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with sex addict George Clooney, who is cheating on her, and his wife, with Internet one night stands (that include the lonely McDormand). The disk ends up at the Russian Embassy, Pitt ends up in the Chesapeake and the only truly nice person in the whole film ends up with a hatchet in his head.

It’s no accident that this collection of mental and spiritual pygmies can be found populating Washington D.C. Over the last eight years it has become the world centre of incompetence, venality, short-sightedness and political expedience and the film plays as an enraged satire about the end of the American Empire. We can only hope.

Body of Lies posterThe self-indulgent partnership between Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe gets another trot out in Body of Lies, a laboured action-thriller about anti-terrorism in the Middle East. Half-decent Leonardo DiCaprio is the lead. He plays honourable field agent Roger Ferris, hunting the Osama-like Al Saleem from Iraq to Jordan via Amsterdam and Langley. Crowe spends most of the film coaching DiCaprio via cellphone and a good ole boy Southern accent. The twist in this film is that he is a boorish, ignorant, arrogant oaf who fails to appreciate that winning hearts and minds is essential to win the war on terror: DiCaprio’s character, an arabic speaker with an appreciation for the region and its people, is continually being hung out to dry by his bosses who simply don’t think the Middle East is worth anything more than the oil that lies beneath it.

Unfortunately for Body of Lies (a terrible, meaningless title), the whole film is thick with cliché and while Scott’s eye for a set-piece remains keen his ear for dialogue is still made of tin.

The Duchess posterAnother terrible nothing title (but for a better film) is The Duchess. A naive young Spencer girl is plucked from Althorp to marry a powerful older man. She soon finds that it is not a love match and that her emotionally closed off husband sees her as a baby factory while he enjoys life with his mistress. Our heroine uses her celebrity to bring attention to political causes and falls in love with a handsome young man, but happiness and freedom is always too far away. Sounds familiar, I know, but this story isn’t set in the 1990’s but in the 18th century and this Spencer isn’t Diana, but her eerily similar ancestor Georgiana (Keira Knightley).

Knightley is fine as the spirited, but eventually broken, young woman; Ralph Fiennes has good moments as the brutish Duke of Devonshire and Charlotte Rampling delivers another icy turn as Georgiana’s calculating mother. The Duchess is a fine history lesson with some nice observations: my favourite is the paparazzi at every social occasion, pencils sharpened to sketch the scandals as they unfold.

Sadly, I have been too busy in recent weeks to preview any of the titles in this year’s Italian Film Festival but the programme looks a good and interesting one as always. The films in the Italian Festival have always leaned towards the commercial and this year is no different. Crowd pleasing comedies like The Littlest Thing rub shoulders with romances like Kiss Me Baby, dramas (The Unknown Woman) and thrillers: Secret Journey. My pick looks like it could be a combination of all those genres, the romantic black comedy Night Bus. Moving to the Embassy this year should do the event the power of good but it’s a pity about the poorly proofed programme though.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 15 October, 2008.

Notes on screening conditions: All three films were screened at the Empire in Island Bay. Body of Lies and The Duchess were at public screenings and Burn After Reading was the Sunday night print check (for staff), so thanks to the Empire people for inviting me to that.

Review: Sex and the City: The Movie, Untraceable, Shine a Light, Leatherheads, Happy-Go-Lucky, Brick Lane, Adam’s Apples, 21 and Prom Night

By Cinema and Reviews

Sex and the City posterNever having seen an episode of Sex and the City on television, I’ll have to leave it to others to place it in context. From what I can gather, though, it appears to be about four women in Manhattan, not too bright, not too nice and not too deep, who are looking for love, success and shoes. The central figure in the group is Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) whose on-again, off-again relationship with Mr Big (Chris Noth) is about to become very much “on” with a huge society wedding and a penthouse 5th Avenue apartment with a closet bigger than the apartment building I live in. Amazingly, it is the closet that causes the most excitement, even when empty.

Meanwhile, Charlotte (Kristin Davis) is blissfully happy with her husband and adopted daughter Lily; Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) is somewhat less than happy to find out that her husband (David Eigenberg) has cheated on her and sex kitten Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is finding life in the shadow of a handsome daytime soap star to be less than fulfilling.

It all comes to a head at the wedding but not before (as well as during and after) we are forced to listen to many, many long conversations mostly about events we have just seen.

Untraceable posterUntraceable is a perfectly serviceable thriller set in rainy Portland. Diane Lane is a widow working the FBI cyber-crime night-shift who discovers a crazed loon stringing up victims in front of a webcam. The more eyeballs he receives the faster his victim dies making everyone complicit in the eventual murder. Director Gregory Hoblit has an unparalelled tv background (“Hill Street Blues”, anyone?) and also directed the tight mind-games thriller Fracture last year and Untraceable is better than it sounds, effective and not nearly as exploitative as the trailer led one to believe.

Shine a Light posterJust like the U2 concert movie earlier this year, most of the people at the front of the Rolling Stones 2006 Beacon Theatre show (recorded for posterity by Martin Scorsese as Shine a Light) watched it via the screens on their cellphones. Heavens, people! Stop trying to record the life going on in front of you and just get in there and live it! (Written from the back row of a darkened cinema on a sunny day). Shine a Light shows the Stones off superbly — the sound is magnificent and the performance (from Jagger in particular) is stunning. Not enough Charlie Watts for my liking but that’s a minor quibble.

Leatherheads posterIt doesn’t take long to establish why the latest George Clooney romantic-comedy has been buried either at sessions no one can get to or cinemas no one wants to visit. Leatherheads is an indulgent romp, feeding off Clooney’s nostalgia for old-time football and classic movies — a limited market. Set in 1925 at the birth of professional football, Clooney plays “Dodge” Connelly, an ageing player trying to keep his athletic dreams alive via the unprepossessing Duluth Bulldogs. As a last gasp attempt to get crowds to pro games he signs college star and war hero Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) to an exorbitant game by game contract and inadvertently changes the sport forever. He also gets hard-boiled newspaper-woman Lexie Littleton (a much less annoying than usual Renée Zellweger) who is trying to uncover the truth about Rutherford’s war record. Vaguely reminiscent of fast-paced verbal comedies like His Girl Friday and Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (and even The Sting), the best thing about Leatherheads is Randy Newman’s wonderful score.

Happy-Go-Lucky posterEvery great artist has major works and minor works. For Prince, for example, Sign O’ The Times is a major work and Alphabet Street Lovesexy isn’t. Mike Leigh’s major works include Naked, Secrets and Lies and All or Nothing and his minor list features Topsy-Turvy and now Happy-Go-Lucky, about primary school teacher Poppy (Sally Hawkins) and her family and friends. There’s not much story and not much development, but I think the reason why Happy-Go-Lucky fails is the lack of empathy for the characters (possibly caused by Leigh not having actors like Brenda Blethyn and Timothy Spall to make the emotional connections for him).

Brick Lane posterThe second half of my contemporary working class London double-feature was Brick Lane, based on a novel I’ve actually read. On the death of her mother, Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee) is married off to priggish Karim (Christopher Simpson) in London where a life of grimy council flats and racist neighbours awaits. Clumsily condensed and fussily directed, Brick Lane never quite overcomes it’s own clichés.

Adam's Apples posterTotally cliché-free and like nothing you have ever seen, Adam’s Apples is a very odd black comic fable about a white supremacist, Adam, sent to a remote country church to see out his parole period. There he meets a gaggle of eccentric, damaged or just plain barking characters, not least Ivan the priest (Mads Mikkelsen) who turns the other cheek so often it might as well be inside out. Full of surprises.

21 posterFinally, a couple of disposable (though probably not biodegradable) entertainments for the yoof: 21 is based on a true story about MIT students who use their phenomenal abilities at, er, counting to cheat the blackjack tables in Vegas. MIT is in Massachusetts and central character Ben (Across The Universe’s Jim Sturgess) is a fatherless scholarship boy so the film could have been called Good Will Counting. If it had any heart or soul or wit. 21 also features Kate Bosworth and Kevin Spacey in their third film together in less than four years.

Prom Night posterAnd Prom Night is a run-of-the-mill slasher film featuring a high school science teacher with an infatuation for Brittany Snow (Hairspray). He kills all her family and then, three years later, escapes from detention to wreck her Prom party. Totally forgettable.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 11 June, 2008.

Notes on screening conditions: All unremarkable screenings at cinemas notable for their attention to screening quality except for Adam’s Apples which is pretty scratchy and has a damaged soundtrack (Paramount) and Shine a Light whichlooked and sounded simply superb at the Embassy.

Review: No Country for Old Men, Michael Clayton, 30 Days of Night, The 11th Hour and Talk to Me

By Cinema and Reviews

No Country for Old Men posterNo Country for Old Men is essential cinema in two senses of the word. First and foremost you must see it, probably more than once. But it is also cinema reduced to its essence. Everything contributes: Cormac McCarthy’s respectfully adapted original novel; beautifully composed images superbly photographed by Roger Deakins (the only creative on the project not named Coen); editing that could be a film school in a box. The standard musical soundtrack is replaced by the music of the everyday: footsteps, coffee pots, car engines, gun fire.

A hunter (Josh Brolin) stumbles across a wilderness drug deal gone wrong: many corpses, a flatbed full of drugs and briefcase full of money. He takes the money hoping to start a new life away from the West Texas trailer park he inhabits with Trainspotting’s Kelly MacDonald. But instead of a winning lottery ticket he has unleashed the epitome of cinema badass-ery: Javier Bardem as an angel of vengeance determined to retrieve the cash by any means necessary.

All the performances are wonderful but the heart of the film is Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Ed Bell. Always (aggravatingly) a couple of steps behind he is a good man ill-at-ease with the sheer, inexplicable, evil he is confronted with. A masterpiece.

30 Days of Night posterJosh Hartnett plays another small town sheriff, out-gunned and out-matched, in 30 Days of Night. He runs Barrow, the northern-most town in Alaska, so far north that one month of the year is spent in darkness. This is the perfect setup for a smart vampire to take advantage of: 30 days of feeding with no enforced hibernation and a bunch of unsavoury characters (well-led by Danny Huston) certainly go to town. Entertaining and stylish, 30 Days goes about its work (within its genre limitations) respectably enough.

Michael Clayton posterI’m beginning to think that George Clooney is so good that his presence has actually made some films seem much better than they actually are: Syriana would be an example. This theory comes in to focus when discussing Michael Clayton, another Oscar contender from first-time director Tony Gilroy. Clooney plays the eponymous legal fixer, a middle-aged man losing his bearings: his moral compass is as adrift as the malfunctioning satnav in his Merc. He is trying to fix a rapidly unravelling case defending a dodgy agri-chemical company when he realises that he is probably on the wrong side but his tenuous personal situation doesn’t give him the freedom to do the right thing. He is conflicted, in other words, and Clooney plays that conflict superbly. But, while George is acting his heart out, the rest of the film doesn’t quite measure up. Performances misstep and the plot weighs the themes down more heavily than it needs to. A good film but not a great one.

The 11th Hour posterLeonardo DiCaprio for the Nobel Peace Prize? Following in the footsteps of Al Gore’s activist phenomenon An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, DiCaprio stakes his own claim with a documentary about environmental destruction and the urgent need for change: The 11th Hour. Sadly for the earnest DiCaprio, there’s nothing here we haven’t seen or heard before and (despite his star power) he is an unconvincing presenter. Perhaps he should have stayed behind the camera and paid Morgan Freeman to front it — he is God after all.

Talk to Me posterTalk to Me is an entertaining and moving little film, destined to be overwhelmed by the heavyweight Oscar contenders opening all around it. Oblivion wouldn’t be a fair outcome though and if you find yourself with the time and inclination to give it a try you won’t be disappointed. Always reliable Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda) plays real-life Washington DC radio star and activist Ralph Waldo “Petey” Green and the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofer (Dirty Pretty Things and American Gangster) is his best friend and Programme Director Dewey Hughes. The racial powderkeg that is DC in the 60’s is well recreated on a limited budget but it is the relationship between these two very different men that works best.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 6 February, 2008.

Special thanks to D at the Embassy for letting me go back to see No Country a second time before deadline.

Review: Ocean’s 13 and six others...

By Cinema and Reviews

This week’s Capital Times film review (lavishly illustrated) and in no particular order: SHREK THE THIRD (Chris Miller & Raman Hui); PIERREPOINT (Adrian Shergold); OCEAN’S 13 (Steven Soderbergh); BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA (Gabor Csupo); SCENES OF A SEXUAL NATURE (Ed Blum); PUPPY (Kieran Galvin); HOW MUCH DO YOU LOVE ME? (Bertrand Blier)

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