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Review: Iron Man 3, First Position and Identity Thief

By Cinema, Reviews

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Whatever they are pay­ing Robert Downey Jr. to play Iron Man, it is is worth every penny. Iron Man 3, the third instal­ment in his own branch of the Marvel Universe series that also fea­tures Captain America, The Mighty Thor and The Hulk is hurt­ling towards a bil­lion dol­lars of box office rev­en­ues and might just have broken even on the $200m pro­duc­tion costs by the time you read this.

Iron man 3 posterI’m not sure that there is a bet­ter tech­ni­cian in com­mer­cial cinema than Downey. Even when he is poorly – or not even – dir­ec­ted in films like the last Sherlock Holmes or the last Iron Man, he is nev­er less than watch­able, but when he is chal­lenged by a dir­ect­or and the mater­i­al he is up there with the best ever. The name Cary Grant just popped in to my head and I think the com­par­is­on is reasonable.

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Review: The Tree of Life, Fire in Babylon, The Bang Bang Club, Jane Eyre, Steam of Life, The Change-Up

By Cinema, Reviews

The Tree of Life posterIt’s the fifth anniversary of my first column for this paper – my, how time flies. Five years of search­ing – usu­ally in vain – for some tran­scend­ence among the many flick­er­ing images in dozens of darkened rooms. And then, as if by magic, tran­scend­ence appears.

It has taken a few weeks – and a second view­ing – to prop­erly pro­cess Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Often baff­ling, frus­trat­ing, unhelp­ful, yet emo­tion­al and evoc­at­ive in ways I couldn’t put my fin­ger on, I wrestled with it through­out the two and a half hour run­ning time – search­ing for answers and mean­ing among the beau­ti­ful images, float­ing, soar­ing camer­work and weird diver­sions into cos­mo­logy and vulcanology.

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Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Horrible Bosses and Larry Crowne

By Cinema, Reviews

Back in 1968 the world was amazed to see a simian-looking creature dis­play­ing rudi­ment­ary (and yet clearly) human qual­it­ies. But enough about my birth, I’m here to talk about Planet of the Apes, the night­mar­ish vis­ion of a world turned upside down: apes that speak, humans that are mute and enslaved, oran­gutans doing “sci­ence”. And of course, the big shock back then was that “it was Earth all along” – we’d caused this cata­strophe ourselves with our envir­on­ment­al pig-headedness and our nuc­le­ar arrog­ance. The suc­cess of that blis­ter­ingly effect­ive ori­gin­al promp­ted sev­er­al sequels to dimin­ished effect – although the sight (in Beneath the Planet of the Apes) of Charlton Heston push­ing the final atom­ic but­ton to des­troy the plan­et in dis­gust at the whole sorry mess was seared on to my child­hood brain forever.

In 2001 the series got the re-boot treat­ment cour­tesy of Tim Burton, a mis­cast Mark Wahlberg (when is he ever not?) and the final tri­umphant dis­play of latex ape mask tech­no­logy. Now the apes are back and there’s no sign of rub­ber any­where to be found – except in some of the human per­form­ances per­haps. Rise of the Planet of the Apes serves as a pre­quel to the Burton film rather than a total from scratch effort – although there’s no equi­val­ent in the ori­gin­al series – and the film does a ter­rif­ic job of set­ting up a story that many of us already know as well as fondly hon­our­ing many details from the ori­gin­al series.

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

By Cinema, 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 karaōke-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: Charlie Wilson’s War, Juno, Cloverfield, Meet the Spartans and The Jane Austen Book Club

By Cinema, Reviews

Charlie Wilson's War poster

The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Day in 1979. They remained in the coun­try, bru­tally sup­press­ing the loc­al res­ist­ance, until they were forced to leave in 1989: almost ten years of occu­pa­tion that des­troyed one coun­try and ruined anoth­er. One side of the story was told in the recent film The Kite Runner: in it we saw a vibrant and cos­mo­pol­it­an cul­ture bombed back to the stone age by the Soviets and their equally one-eyed Taliban replacements.

For peacen­iks like myself, the Soviet aggres­sion was an incon­veni­ent fact, dif­fi­cult to acknow­ledge dur­ing our efforts to pre­vent nuc­le­ar anni­hil­a­tion at the hands of war-mongerers like Ronald Reagan. While we were march­ing for peace and dis­arm­a­ment, play­boy Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) was secretly fund­ing the Mujahideen insur­gents to the tune of hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars, provid­ing them with the weapons that would bring down the Russians.

With the help of a reneg­ade CIA-man (won­der­ful Philip Seymour Hoffman), a Texan social­ite (Julia Roberts), an Israeli spy (Ken Stott) and President Zia, dic­tat­or of Pakistan (Om Puri), Wilson per­suaded, cajoled, threatened and coerced Congress to pay for all this – without them even know­ing what it was for. Aaron Sorkin’s script is razor-sharp, often very funny, and does a great job of not spelling out all the les­sons we should be learn­ing. Charlie Wilson’s War may have brought about the end of the Cold War but it also opened up Afghanistan to the bru­tal fun­da­ment­al­ism of the Taliban, increased the influ­ence of the Saudis in the region and indir­ectly led to the Iraqi poo-fight we are in now. As Wilson says, it’s all about the endgame.

Juno poster

How strange it is that two of my favour­ite films of the past twelve months should be about coming-to-terms with an unwanted preg­nancy. Knocked Up, last year, was a broad com­edy with a good heart and this year Jason Reitman’s Juno is even bet­ter: full of unex­pec­ted sub­tlety and nuance from a great cast work­ing with a tre­mend­ous script from gif­ted new­comer Diablo Cody.

Like last year’s Hard Candy, Ellen Page plays a pre­co­cious teen­ager only this time she is not a hom­icid­al revenge mani­ac. At only 16, she finds her­self preg­nant to the unlikely Paulie Bleeker (Superbads Michael Cera) and takes it upon her­self to find appro­pri­ate par­ents for the little sea mon­key grow­ing inside her. The rich couple who sign on (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) look per­fect, but looks can be deceiv­ing. Juno is an easy film to love and I can see people going back to it again and again.

Cloverfield poster

If a film has a good heart you can for­give its flaws, but what to do when it has no heart at all? Cloverfield is a modern-day retell­ing of a clas­sic Hollywood mon­ster movie and once again New York gets a ter­rible pound­ing. A group of self-absorbed yup­pies are caught in the carnage and try to escape but man­age to film the entire thing on their cam­cord­er. Yeah right. Technically admir­able, Cloverfield clev­erly main­tains the home video con­ceit but shaky-cam motion sick­ness got to me in the end.

Meet the Spartans poster

Meet the Spartans is all flaw and no redeem­ing fea­ture: anoth­er miss and miss spoof of last year’s hits. Soft tar­gets include “Ugly Betty”, “American Idol”, Paris Hilton (yawn) and 300. The Spartans were gay, appar­ently. And not in a good way.

The Jane Austen Book Club poster

The Jane Austen Book Club is a well-intentioned adapt­a­tion of the pop­u­lar nov­el about a group of women (and one dude) who meet once a month to talk about their favour­ite author. Writer and dir­ect­or Robin Swicord has assembled a fine ensemble cast includ­ing Maria Bello, Kathy Baker, Amy Brenneman and Jimmy Smits but too often they are rep­res­ent­at­ives of people rather than people them­selves and the film is un-persusasive. Actually, that’s not entirely true: the tent­at­ive rela­tion­ship between Bello’s inde­pend­ent hound breed­er and Hugh Dancy’s shy IT guru works nicely (for the most part).

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 30 January, 2008.

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: Charlie Wilson’s War screened at a Reading Cinemas print check, 9am last Tuesday morn­ing (thanks, Hadyn), sit­ting in the com­fy Gold Lounge chairs; Juno screened on Sunday after­noon in Penthouse 1 (the ori­gin­al). It’s nice to see the Penthouse finally repla­cing the seats in Cinema 1 but per­haps they could think about repla­cing the sound sys­tem with some­thing that wasn’t salvaged from a tran­sist­or radio. Meet the Spartans was seen at a busy Saturday mat­inée at Readings where the brain-dead teen­agers around me hooted at every stu­pid, lame, joke. Cloverfield was in Readings digit­al cinema (Cinema 5) and looked sen­sa­tion­al. Digital really is the future and it can­’t come soon enough. I shud­der to think how ill I might have felt if I’d seen Cloverfield from a wobbly, scratchy print. The Jane Austen Book Club was the second part of a Penthouse double-feature on Sunday, this time in Cinema 3 (the new one) which is splendid.

Review: The Pursuit of Happyness and more ...

By Cinema, Reviews

Pursuit of Happyness posterThe always watch­able Will Smith returns to our screens this week in a more than decent drama called The Pursuit of Happyness. Smith plays solo dad Chris Gardner who struggles to find a way out of the poverty trap (through an unpaid intern­ship at stock­broker Dean Witter) while bad luck, and life itself, con­spire against him. Happyness is a well-made remind­er that it can be flip­pin’ expens­ive being poor and it suc­cess­fully wrung sev­er­al salty tears from these cal­loused eyes.

Incidentally, Smith’s son Christopher is played by Smith’s real-life son Jaden, prov­ing that the apple really does­n’t fall very far from the tree.

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