Prospective new migrants to New Zealand should be shown Ian Mune’s movie Billy T: Te Movie in order to weed out the uncommitted. Of course, we needn’t tell them that the country has changed beyond all recognition in the the last 25 years – that would spoil the fun. We could stick a hidden camera on them and giggle (I think I know what the giggle should sound like too) as the full horror of New Zealand’s unsophistication in the 70s and 80s is revealed.
Billy’s success was symptomatic of that strange immature clinging to overseas ideas that riddled New Zealand culture at the time – he was inspired by awful Northern comics like Bernard Manning and Les Dawson – but he was also a catalyst for the change and Mune’s doco tells his story well. My only complaint – for a change – is that it isn’t long enough – some of the most interesting aspects of Billy’s life are skirted over pretty lightly. I could have done with more from Jim Moriarty, for example, about what it was like as an activist to watch the only Maori on tv perpetuating ugly stereotypes. In fact, they could have swapped more analysis for some of Billy’s lamer jokes and I wouldn’t have minded.
At what point in a man’s life does he decide to become a dry cleaner? For Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Leonard Kraditor, in Two Lovers that day is never and yet he still finds himself to be one. He’s a sensitive soul whose mental health issues have resulted in several suicide attempts, a permanent relationship with medication and a need to start again with his loving parents in their small apartment in Brooklyn.
His father introduces him to the daughter of a business associate (Vinessa Shaw) in the hopes that a positive relationship might heal his son and also be a profitable development for the dry cleaning business. At the same time, Leonard meets and falls for the beautiful and mysterious upstairs neighbour, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, whose own relationship with a wealthy married man is doing her no good.
Two Lovers is written and directed by James Gray, the iconoclastic and uncompromising independent filmmaker responsible for the gritty New York dramas Little Odessa and last year’s We Own the Night , which also starred Phoenix. It’s a careful and sensitive picture about how so often love is about wanting to heal and protect someone – Shaw wants to heal Phoenix and he wants to heal Paltrow and none of them realise the extent to which they have to heal themselves first.
Australia (Evidently, modern Australia was built on racism, bigotry, corruption and alcohol). Not the débâcle that some media would have you believe, Straya is an old-fashioned epic that looks right at home on the big Embassy screen. If only Baz Luhrman the director had more confidence in Luhrman the writer, he might have avoided some of the more OTT moments by letting a good story tell itself. The film also suffers from a lack of Russell Crowe (not something you can say all that often). A rougher, nastier performance would have suited the character of the Drover better but might also provoked something a little less simpering from Nicole Kidman. Hugh Jackman is a fine enough actor (and is necessarily Australian), he’s just tragically miscast.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt is born old and grows physically younger all the while touching the lives of the people around him). Other commentators have already made the obvious comparisons between Benjamin Button and Forrest Gump, but the disappointment I felt on leaving the theatre was palpable. Despite the evident technical mastery on display and a winning performance by Brad Pitt, the film falls well short of its own expectations, in fact I would argue that Yes Man is actually more profound.
Yes Man(Jim Carrey finds love and fulfilment by not saying “no”). Proves that achieving modest aims is often more satisfying than falling short with more ambitious projects. The presence of Rhys Darby adds half a star and the wonderful Zooey Deschanel adds a whole extra one. Great indie soundtrack too.
Bolt (TV hero dog discovers he doesn’t actually have super powers). The most fun of the holidays can be found by slipping on the Readings’ polarized 3D glasses and enjoying the Disney cartoon romp Bolt. Unlike the lead-footed Desperaux, Bolt zips along with plenty of visual and verbal panache. The 3D isn’t too gimmicky and does the job of bringing you into the film (or if you prefer, making everyone else in the theatre disappear).
The Tale of Desperaux (big-eared mouse rescues Princess, saves kingdom). On Sunday the morning, of those queued at the Empire in Island Bay 100% of the kids chose Bolt, 100% of the reviewers chose The Tale of Desperaux and the kids got the better part of the deal. Alone in the cinema I killed time by trying to work out which actor’s voice I was listening to: anyone know what William H. Macy sounds like?
Waltz with Bashir (war veteran interviews old buddies to try and remember a suppressed past). The best film of the holidays actually opened before the break but after my last deadline of the old year. An animated exploration of one of the many Israeli wars against their neighbours and the tricks played by memory, WWB has many images that linger in the mind, ready to re-emerge whenever I see a newspaper headline about the current situation in Gaza.
The Spirit (rookie cop is brought back to life with an eye for the ladies). You won’t have seen a film quite like The Spirit before, not one that was any good at least. A cross between the stark, CGI-noir of Sin City with the corny humour of the 60s Batman, if you’ve ever wanted to see Samuel L. Jackson camping it up in full Nazi regalia this is the film for you. For the rest of us, not so much.
Bedtime Stories (Hotel handyman’s stories for his nephew and niece come true the next day). The need for a PG rating cramps Adam Sandler’s style somewhat and the money the producers obviously saved on cinematography went on some class Brit-actors including Richard Griffiths and Jonathan Pryce.
Twilight (Tale of a teenage girl arriving in a new town, befriended by, and then falling in love with, the local vampire). Evidently the Twilight young-adult novels are some kind of phenomenon but I was more than mildly diverted by the cinematic version. I liked the sense of place (the cold and rainy Pacific North West) and the lack of urgency about the story-telling – taking its own sweet time. The fact that the primary relationship is between an adolescent girl and a 100-year-old man (no matter how beautiful and young-looking) did manage to creep me out though, more so than the ‘cradle-snatching’ in Benjamin Button.
Frost/Nixon (Famous interview saves Frost’s career and finishes Nixon’s). A film of primary interest to 70s conspiracy theory buffs and actors looking for a masterclass. Frank Langella does Richard M. Nixon perfectly despite bearing little resemblance to the real person and Michael Sheen and Rebecca Hall add to their growing reputations. The Frost/Nixon interviews had plenty of drama of their own but this film pads it all out with events and conversations that didn’t happen.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Gap year American girls find love in Catalonia). There was a time when the name Woody Allen was a guarantee of high-brow quality and it’s a sign of the times that the excellent Vicky Cristina Barcelona is being sold to the public with no mention of his name at all. As it turns out VCB is pretty damn fine – a witty and intelligent script that plays out like a deftly dramatised New Yorker short story.
The Dinner Guest (Simple couple turn posh to impress the new Boss). The French movies we get here seem to be more obsessed with class than anything from England and The Dinner Guest is no exception. The twist in this case is that our heroes are so uncultured they could be, I don’t know, English. Betrays its stage origins so much so I might have been watching it at Circa.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 14 January, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: I am pleased to report that everything was well presented (the print for Vicky Cristina Barcelona might have been a little too rough for the big Embassy screen). The digital 3D Bolt had some strange masking issues which nobody at Readings could explain to me, and I only noticed during the closing credits so no de-merit points apply.
Dollar 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.
Ten 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 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.
Depression 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.
And, at risk of sounding like a total film-wanker I’m going to allocate what strengths The Spiderwick Chronicles has to the presence of the great John Sayles as co-writer. Sayles’ independent work includes classics like The Brother From Another Planet and Passion Fish but makes a living doing (mostly uncredited) punch-up jobs on big budget screenplays. I was growing increasingly frustrated with the plodding story-telling, and the over-reliance on the well-designed digi-creatures, before a great moment at the climax restored my faith that a proper screenwriter was on board after all.
Three children have to leave New York when their parents split up and live in the big, old, abandoned house in the country that their crazy Aunt lived in. Freddie Highmore, so ubiquitous in these sorts of films that he even does double-duty in this one, plays bad-boy Jared who discovers an old book in the attic, reads the note warning him not to open it, ignores it, and unleashes a world of goblins, fairies and ogres that are invisible to normal people. Nothing new to report there, then, but every generation seems to need a new version just for them.
I’ve been a John Pilger-sceptic for a while, not helped by his bombastic and unpleasant behaviour to local interviewers, but his first independent documentary for cinema, The War on Democracy, eventually won me over. It makes an excellent companion to Helen Smyth’s Cuba-doc ¿La Verdad? as it provides the kind of encyclopaedic background to the United States’ nefarious engagement with Latin America that she could only hint at. Starting in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, Pilger uses the failed coup in 2002 as a springboard to show how, for more than 50 years, the US has installed or deposed governments across the continent in order to further its own political and financial aims. It’s not great cinema – that’s not Pilger’s bag – but it is essential viewing.
Horton Hears a Who! may well feature the most profound moment in cinema this year. As the tiny citizens of Who-ville (a bustling and happy community living on a tiny speck, itself sitting on a dandelion being blown around by fate) realise that in order to be saved they first must be heard, they bang drums, blow trumpets and chant “We are here!” Like the forgotten poor in Pilger’s Caracas barrio or the displaced in Darfur, the power to proclaim our existence in the face of ignorant or malevolent authority isn’t just a right, it’s an obligation, and I’m certain that the good Dr. Seuss wouldn’t have missed the connection.
Big-hearted elephant Horton (Jim Carrey) rescues the speck when his enormous ears pick up the tiny voice of the Who-ville Mayor (Steve Carell) and he realises that he has a mission. In the face of community standards ruthlessly enforced by Carol Burnett’s Kangaroo, Horton is hounded out of the jungle but he never gives up. So, not only does Horton not suck like all recent Seuss adaptations, it bristles with energy, humour and panache. Choice!
Like the forthcoming Dylan portrait I’m Not There, Across the Universe feels like the Baby Boomers’ last attempt to claim the 60s as, you know, important, meaningful, unique. The music of The Beatles tells the story of star-crossed lovers Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) and Jude (Jim Sturgess) as they try and keep a relationship alive across that tumultuous decade. I emotionally disengaged the moment I realised that Sturgess sounded like Robbie Williams instead of John Lennon but was never less than entertained. A trip, man.
How She Move is a Canadian version of films like Step Up 2 The Streets, Stomp The Yard and countless others. Featuring all the usual elements of the genre: underground urban dance crews; a kid has to get out of the ghetto via a scholarship; she needs the prize money; parents just don’t understand, etc. It’s as if the producers couldn’t decide which banal clichés to leave out and gave up, stuffing the finished film to breaking point. I’ve grown to really dislike the dancing in these films, too.
Finally, a late word on behalf of Rambo (which missed the cut during the last few weeks). By making his villains Burmese human-rights violators and his victims innocent aid workers, director Sylvester Stallone stacks the deck effectively and, despite looking completely bizarre, he infuses his taciturn killing-machine with the occasional moist-eyed moment of humanity amid the flying limbs. A respectable end to what had become a cartoon franchise.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 16 April, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: Semi-Pro was at a sparsely attended public matinée at Readings. The Spiderwick Chronicles was at the Empire in Island Bay and the review was in no way influenced by the lovely free coffee they made me just as the trailers were playing. The War on Democracy was a DVD screener provided by Hopscotch (via GT) and the film is currently only playing at the Lighthouse in Petone. Horton Hears a Who! was also screened at the Empire where I was the only unattended adult present. Across the Universe was screened at the Paramount’sWorld Cinema Showcase. How She Move was an exceedingly sparsely attended matinée at Readings and Rambo was another Readings week day matinée, a couple of weeks ago.
When your correspondent was a nipper back in the early 80s, two of the most prized pirate videos available were the legendary Porky’s and something called Lemon Popsicle – two films about horny teenagers in the 1950s – and illicit copies were precious currency. Now the modern generation gets its own fat Jewish kids trying to get laid in Superbad: a very funny, filthy, comedy spawned fully-formed from the dirty minds of two horny 14 year olds (writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg produced their first draft when they were, in fact, only 14).
High school kids Seth and Evan are desperate to get lucky so they’ll be able to go to college with “experience” and the only way they know to achieve that is to get chicks drunk. With the help of an extremely humorous fake Hawaiian ID and two hilariously easy-going local cops they get pretty close. As you might expect, the perfect audience for this film is about 14 years old, and considering the R16 rating it would only be fitting if they watched it on grainy VHS or wagged school to sneak into the flicks.
I Do is that rare beast: a romantic comedy that works better as a romance than a comedy, largely due to direction from Eric Lartigau that makes a horrible meal of the broad comedy moments and self-effacing performances from leads Charlotte Gainsbourg and Alain Chabat. Chabat plays hen-pecked metrosexual perfume designer Luis Costa, saddled with five sisters, seven nieces and a widowed mother, all of whom are desperate to see him married off. As seems to bethe way of things in French cinema recently Costa hires a stranger to pretend to be his fiancée so she can dump him at the alter and the family will get off his back. A matchless plan I’m sure you’ll agree.
Surely it can’t be a coincidence that this film is released in the same week as Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, another film about an emotionally stunted wonder-nose. Perfume is based on the well-loved Patrick Süsskind novel that many (including Stanley Kubrick) considered un-filmable and so it proves. Ben Wishaw plays Jean-Baptiste Grenouille: born into poverty in pre-revolutionary Paris he has a remarkable talent for discerning scent. Unfortunately, as a character he’s not much more than a monkey-boy with a nose and director Tom Tykwer fails to find a satisfactory cinematic representation for the sense of smell which defeats the point somewhat.
I won’t go as far as recommending avoidance as, unlike most films, it is full of memorable moments and will at least provoke a response – its just that mine was negative.
The likeable comedian Steve Carell takes the lead in Evan Almighty, sequel to un-likeable comedian Jim Carrey’s smash-hit Bruce Almighty from 2003. Carell plays politician Evan Baxter who is taught a lesson in humility and ethics by genial practical joker God (Morgan Freeman). Soft-headed, dim-witted but warm-hearted.
Punk came along at just the right time for Joe Strummer. As “Woody” Mellor (after folkie Woody Guthrie) he was a middle-class art school drop-out channelling his energy into women and pub rock until he heard the siren call of punk and made his mark as leader of The Clash. Julien Temple’s moving biography, The Future is Unwritten, is an excellent guide to the punk period but is even better on the personal and artistic resurrection of Strummer’s final years. Highly recommended.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 19 September, 2007.