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Review: A Good Day to Die Hard, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, This is 40 and Safe Haven

By Cinema and Reviews

A Good Day to Die Hard posterThe first thing you need to under­stand about A Good Day to Die Hard is that it isn’t really a Die Hard movie. In the same way that instant cof­fee and espresso cof­fee share a name but are in fact entirely dif­fer­ent bever­ages, you’d be wise to go to a Good Day screen­ing with mod­est expect­a­tions – expect­a­tions that would already have been lowered if you’d seen 2007’s dis­mal Die Hard 4.0 (aka Live Free and Die Hard).

Bruce Willis plays Detective John McClane for the fifth time since 1988 but this time there’s no smirk, no glint in his eye and none of the recog­nis­able human frailties that made the ori­gin­al char­ac­ter so appeal­ing. Instead, he’s just what every­body always said he was – an asshole. When his son is arres­ted by Moscow author­it­ies for what looks like a mob hit, McClane heads to Eastern Europe to try and save a boy he hardly knows. As usu­al, McClane becomes “the fly in the oint­ment, the mon­key in the wrench” and he imme­di­ately lands in the middle of a CIA oper­a­tion to extract a rebel olig­arch hid­ing inform­a­tion that could bring down the gov­ern­ment, his untimely inter­ven­tion des­troy­ing most of Moscow’s traffic in the process.

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Review: Leaving, She’s Out of My League, Date Night, Kick-Ass and Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang

By Cinema and Reviews

I watch a lot of movies in this job and this week I’d like to start with a couple of import­ant tips that will help keep your cinema-going exper­i­ence in top shape. Firstly, ice cream. Avoid tubs of ice cream if pos­sible because you have to look down every scoop to make sure you’re not scoop­ing ice cream into your lap and every time you look down you miss some­thing import­ant on the screen. This is par­tic­u­larly import­ant for sub­titled films.

Leaving posterSecondly, when your loc­al cinema sched­ules an art­house film that hasn’t been pre­vi­ously pro­grammed by the Film Festival, ask your­self why that might be before com­mit­ting to a tick­et. Case in point: Leaving (aka Partir) a mod­ern day updat­ing of the Lady Chatterley story star­ring Kristin Scott Thomas. She plays a well-off mar­ried woman named Suzanne who makes the tra­gic mis­take of fall­ing for the Spanish build­er who is work­ing on her house. In short order she real­ises that her mar­riage (though mater­i­ally suc­cess­ful) is love­less, leaves her snobby sur­geon hus­band (Yvan Attal) and the kids to shack up with her new lov­er (Sergi López) and tries to start a new life without all the bour­geois home comforts.

It seems to me that every French film that makes it to New Zealand is about the same thing: the clash of cul­tures between the well-off, cul­tur­ally soph­ist­ic­ated but some­how not quite real, middle-class and the salt-of-the-earth work­ing people, and the dangers of the two mix­ing. Sometimes those dangers play them­selves out comed­ic­ally (The Valet, Welcome to the Sticks), some­times dra­mat­ic­ally (Conversations with My Gardener) and some­times tra­gic­ally as we have here. And Leaving is tra­gic in more ways than one.

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Review: Slumdog Millionaire, Role Models and The Map Reader

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

I don’t have much room this week and I want to spend most of it gush­ing over Slumdog Millionaire so let’s get started.

Role Models posterBack in 2003, when the Incredibly Strange Film Festival was still its own bump­tious stand-alone anarch­ic self, we opened the Festival with the sum­mer camp spoof Wet Hot American Summer and good­ness me, wasn’t that a time? Written and dir­ec­ted by David Wain, WHAS was a pitch-perfect trib­ute to teen com­ed­ies of the 80s and his new film Role Models attempts to ride the cur­rent wave of sexu­ally frank grown-up com­ed­ies but he doesn’t seem to really have the heart for it. The gross-out bits are uncom­fort­ably gross, the boobies seem like after­thoughts and the film really doesn’t hit its straps until it starts cheer­ing for the under­dog late in the day.

Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott play sales­man ped­dling energy drink to high school kids. After an unfor­tu­nate (sta­tion­ary) road rage incid­ent their jail time is con­ver­ted to com­munity ser­vice at Sturdy Wings – a ‘big broth­er’ out­fit match­ing mis­fit kids up with respons­ible male adults. This kind of mater­i­al has proved out­stand­ingly pop­u­lar recently when pro­duced by Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and I can’t help think­ing that if he had got­ten his hands on Role Models it would have about 20% more jokes in 16% short­er run­ning time – he really is that much of a machine.

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Review: Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The X-Files: I Want to Believe, Closing the Ring, Smart People, Married Life, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and Journey From the Fall

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

Forgetting Sarah Marshall posterForgetting Sarah Marshall is an ideal post-Festival pal­ate cleanser: a saucy com­edy fresh off the Judd Apatow pro­duc­tion line (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up). Here he gives the spot­light to one of his sup­port­ing play­ers: Jason Segal (Knocked Up) plays tv com­poser Peter who with­in two minutes of the start of the film is dumped by tv star Sarah M. (Kristen Bell from “Veronica Mars”). He goes to Hawaii to recov­er only to dis­cov­er that his ex is also there – with her new English rock star boy­friend. Very funny in parts, sur­pris­ingly mov­ing at times thanks to a heart­felt per­form­ance from big lump Segal, FSM gets an extra half a star for fea­tur­ing pro­fes­sion­al West Ham fan Russell Brand, play­ing a ver­sion of his sex-addicted stage persona.

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Review: There Will Be Blood, 27 Dresses, Rogue Assassin and Red Road

By Cinema and Reviews

There Will Be Blood posterLike the buses on Courtenay Place after 8 o’clock on a Sunday night, you can wait what seems like forever for a cinema mas­ter­piece and then two come along at once. Like No Country for Old Men, P. T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is an American clas­sic and you’d be hard-pushed to slip a play­ing card between them in terms of quality.

Dedicated to Anderson’s hero, Robert Altman, Blood is a beast of a dif­fer­ent col­our to Old Men: a heavy-weight Western-style epic pour­ing oil on the myth of the American dream and then drop­ping a match on it. The amaz­ing Daniel Day-Lewis plays inde­pend­ent pro­spect­or, oil man and mis­an­thrope Daniel Plainview. Determined to sep­ar­ate simple people from the oil under their feet he uses his adop­ted child in order to resemble an hon­est fam­ily man while he plots the down­fall of his enemies.

There Will Be Blood ruth­lessly dis­sects the two com­pet­ing powers of 20th Century American life: cap­it­al­ism and reli­gion, each as cyn­ic­al and cor­rupt as the oth­er. Paul Dano (the com­ic­ally mute son in Little Miss Sunshine) is a rev­el­a­tion as cha­ris­mat­ic pas­tor Eli Sunday, the only char­ac­ter strong enough to mer­it a battle of wills with Plainview – a battle to the finish.

27 Dresses posterListless rom-com 27 Dresses comes to life for one amus­ing mont­age of wed­dings and dresses (about half way in) but oth­er­wise this star-vehicle for Katherine Heigl (Knocked Up) seems under-powered. She’s joined in the film by James Marsden (Enchanted) (not nor­mally a cause for rejoicing, and so it proves once again here) and Malin Akerman (The Heartbreak Kid) who isn’t nearly as funny as she thinks she is. Heigl plays a sup­posedly plain, self-effacing, young woman who organ­ises the lives (and wed­dings) of all those around her while secretly pin­ing for a wed­ding of her own with Boss Ed Burns.

Rogue Assassin posterRogue Assassin is big and dumb and doesn’t even suc­ceed on it’s own lim­ited terms. Former mem­ber of the British Olympic Diving Team, Jason Statham (Crank) plays an inex­plic­ably English-accented FBI agent in the Asian Crime Unit. He’s on the trail of an ex-CIA hit­man named Rogue (Jet Li) who is engaged in a Yojimbo-like plot to des­troy San Francisco’s Yakuza and Triad gangs. Fans of Jet Li’s trade­mark bal­let­ic mar­tial arts will be dis­ap­poin­ted as any­thing more than stand­ing around look­ing stern seems to be bey­ond him now. The daft twist at the end will provide some much-needed amusement.

Red Road posterDanish pro­vocateur dir­ect­or Lars von Trier recently announced his retire­ment from film­mak­ing due to depres­sion. He hasn’t ceased involve­ment in film, though, as his com­pany Zentropa is still pro­du­cing some of the most unusu­al and chal­len­ging films around and Red Road is a per­fect example, the first release in a new pro­ject called The Advance Party. Zentropa pro­du­cers Lone Scherfig & Anders Thomas Jensen (Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself) cre­ated sev­er­al char­ac­ters and then gave those char­ac­ters (and a set of rules about how they should be used) to three writer-directors in the hope that the three films togeth­er would prove great­er than the sum of the parts.

The first film, Andrea Arnold’s Red Road, isn’t just an inter­est­ing exper­i­ment, it’s actu­ally very good. Lonely Glasgow CCTV oper­at­or Jackie (Kate Dickie) is haunted by an unspe­cified tragedy from her past. When she sees an unex­pec­ted face on her mon­it­or she, in spite of her­self, is forced to con­front him and her own grief. The Red Road coun­cil estate, that gives the film it’s name, makes Newtown Park Flats look like the Isle of Capri, and the whole thing has a Loach-ian grit that is hap­pily well-balanced by some beau­ti­ful cine­ma­to­graphy. The film itself plays out slowly, but not inev­it­ably, and the sur­prise rev­el­a­tion at the end is less power­ful but some­how more mov­ing than you expect.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 20 February, 2008.

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: There Will Be Blood screened at Rialto Wellington on Saturday after­noon. The image was incor­rectly masked so that the ver­tic­al cyan soundtrack along the left of the screen was clearly vis­ible through­out. The pro­jec­tion­ist was aler­ted but he shrugged his shoulders and said there was noth­ing he could do about it. We have about six more weeks of Rialto Wellington and I volun­teer to swing the first wrecking-ball.

Review: Charlie Wilson’s War, Juno, Cloverfield, Meet the Spartans and The Jane Austen Book Club

By Cinema and 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.