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Review: Where the Wild Things Are, The Informant!, The Time Traveller’s Wife, Zombieland and The Cake Eaters

By Cinema and Reviews

Is it too early to sug­gest that we might be liv­ing in a golden age of cinema? Think of the film­makers work­ing in the com­mer­cial realm these days who have dis­tinct­ive voices, thrill­ing visu­al sens­ib­il­it­ies, sol­id intel­lec­tu­al (and often mor­al) found­a­tions, a pas­sion for com­bin­ing enter­tain­ment with some­thing more – along with an abid­ing love of cinema in all its strange and won­der­ful forms.

I’m think­ing of the Coens, obvi­ously, but also Peter Jackson (and protégé Neill Blomkamp), Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz and the forth­com­ing Scott Pilgrim), Jason Reitman (Juno and January’s Up in the Air), Guillermo Del Toro (work­ing hard on The Hobbit in Miramar), and even Tarantino is still pro­du­cing the goods. This week we are lucky enough to get new work from two oth­ers who should be in that list: Spike Jonze and Steven Soderbergh.

Jonze made his name with oddball stor­ies like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation and the first thing you notice about his inter­pret­a­tion of the beloved Maurice Sendak children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, is that it simply doesn’t resemble any­thing else you’ve ever seen. With the help of writer Dave Eggers (the nov­el “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”, Away We Go) he has used the book as a start­ing point for a beau­ti­ful and sens­it­ive med­it­a­tion on what it is like to be a child (a boy child specifically).

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Review: Gone Baby Gone, Shutter and Drillbit Taylor

By Cinema and Reviews

In 1997 two young hot­shots stunned the film world by win­ning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for their first pro­duced script. Since then, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have suffered cruel mut­ter­ings ever since: that they could­n’t pos­sibly have writ­ten such a good film by them­selves and that if they did why haven’t they writ­ten any­thing else? Added to the indig­nity is the con­stant rumour that Hollywood script guru William Goldman net­ted a mil­lion dol­lars for three weeks work punch­ing up Good Will Hunting on con­di­tion that he would forever deny it (which he denies).

In the 11 years since that win the career tra­ject­or­ies of Affleck and Damon have been pub­lic. Starring roles in block­buster suc­cesses, high-profile romantic liais­ons and (in the case of Affleck) a little bit of rehab. But there has been pre­cious little ori­gin­al cre­at­ive out­put from either party until the release of Gone Baby Gone, Affleck’s dir­ect­ori­al debut (also co-written), which reached Wellington this week.

Directing is a real test of a film­maker­’s chops. Unlike a fudged writ­ing cred­it you can­’t fake being on a set (although a great crew, DP and edit­or can often cov­er a mul­ti­tude of sins) but I’m thrilled to report that Affleck has pro­duced a work of genu­ine last­ing quality.

Based on a nov­el by Dennis Lehane, Gone Baby Gone is set in the same Boston mean streets that Will (from Good Will Hunting) grew up in. If you saw Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River (also from a Lehane story) or Scorsese’s The Departed you’ll be famil­i­ar with the geo­graph­ic­al ter­rit­ory, but Affleck’s eye is even more highly tuned to the neigh­bour­hood than those masters.

Four year old Amanda has been snatched from her home while her young single moth­er (sen­sa­tion­al Amy Ryan) was get­ting stoned at a bar. The Police led by Morgan Freeman (him­self suf­fer­ing the loss of a child) are strug­gling to get trac­tion from a com­munity sus­pi­cious of uni­forms. Young private invest­ig­at­or Patrick (Casey Affleck) and his part­ner Angie (Michelle Monaghan) are enlis­ted by the fam­ily to try and tease out some clues that would be unavail­able to law enforcement.

And that’s when it gets really inter­est­ing – because Affleck chooses to down­play the thrill­er (or pro­ced­ur­al) aspects of the piece in favour of char­ac­ter study and the unveil­ing of a ter­rible mor­al dilemma. And its a dilemma that remains per­fectly bal­anced right to the end where, like Bogart’s Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, our hon­our­able private eye is vir­tu­ally alone, forced to live with the unend­ing pain of doing the right thing.

The pro­duc­tion line of asian-horror-remakes is still chug­ging along. The Eye (remake of a Hong Kong thrill­er) will be reviewed next week while Shutter (based on a Thai film called Shutter) has already been around a week or so. I find these things to be dread­fully tire­some for the most part, for­mu­laic and pre­dict­able. In Shutter a new­ly­wed American couple in Japan (Joshua Jackson and Rachael Taylor) find strange shad­ows appear­ing in their hol­i­day snaps. It turns out there’s a spir­it fol­low­ing them around, sneak­ing into their frames, spoil­ing their com­pos­i­tions. Well, their pho­to­graphy is about to be the least of their wor­ries. Shutter is laugh­able for the first two-thirds but res­cued by a well-manufactured dénoue­ment so I ended up not hat­ing it totally.

Owen Wilson has been in the news more for his men­tal health issues than his act­ing in recent months but it is worth­while to be reminded that he remains one of the most watch-able act­ors of mod­ern times and the pleas­ant enough com­edy Drillbit Taylor comes to life whenev­er he is on the screen. He plays the eponym­ous Taylor, a mil­it­ary desert­er and bum who takes on the job of pro­tect­ing three nerdy kids from high school bul­lies. The kids are pretty funny too – like the kids from Superbad, only a few years younger.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 2 April, 2008.

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: This is the first all-Readings edi­tion of the weekly review since it com­menced back in October 2006.

Review: The Bourne Ultimatum, Day Watch, Joy Division and The Singer

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

It’s Bourne-time again and rogue-agent Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is still try­ing to find out who he is, who erased his memory and why. A Guardian journ­al­ist (Paddy Considine) seems to know some­thing so he takes the Eurostar to London and with­in 15 minutes of arriv­ing the bod­ies are pil­ing up.

In a cun­ning (not to men­tion poten­tially con­fus­ing) screen­writ­ing coup the first two-thirds of Ultimatum actu­ally takes place ‘before’ the final 15 minutes of Supremacy (the pre­vi­ous sequel) and the two time-lines meet briefly before Ultimatum picks us up and takes us to the final, fas­cin­at­ing, reveal: of a plot (as the say­ing goes) ripped from the head­lines – and from post‑9/11 para­noid, punch-drunk, American for­eign policy.

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Review: Hot Fuzz and five more ...

By Cinema and Reviews

Hot Fuzz posterIt is, of course, com­pletely bril­liant. And loud. And while it’s not quite as per­fect as pre­de­cessor (and cinema re-definer) Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz is as enter­tain­ing a night out as you’ll find anywhere.

Co-creator Simon Pegg plays PC Nicholas Angel, top cop, so good he’s mak­ing the rest of the Met look bad. He’s reas­signed to the sleepy west coun­try vil­lage of Sandford where, apart from a one-swan crime-spree, the peace is nev­er breached. Of course, in a pic­tur­esque English vil­lage noth­ing is what it seems and Angel and part­ner Danny Butterman (Nick Frost) are going to bust this thing wide open, whatever “it” might actu­ally be.

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Review: For Your Consideration, The Good Shepherd, The Cave of the Yellow Dog, The Fountain and Music & Lyrics

By Cinema and Reviews

For Your Consideration posterThere was a time when a new improv com­edy from Christopher Guest and his reg­u­lar cast of inspired com­ics would be eagerly awaited but as time goes by the returns are prov­ing mea­ger. For Your Consideration could have been the cream of the crop – after all Hollywood, the sub­ject mat­ter, is closest to the cre­at­ors real lives and the tar­gets are big and soft. Maybe that’s the problem.

Catherine O’Hara, Harry Shearer and Parker Posey play act­ors shoot­ing the per­fectly awful Home For Purim when an inter­net gos­sip starts a rumour that their work might be Oscar mater­i­al. The sad thing is that that Catherine O’Hara’s per­form­ance as tra­gic Marilyn Hack might actu­ally have been worthy of Oscar con­sid­er­a­tion if it had been in a bet­ter film.

The Good Shepherd posterMatt Damon and Angelina Jolie star in The Good Shepherd, a worthy American coun­ter­point to the clas­sic Le Carré spy stor­ies of the 70’s and 80’s – “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, etc. – where the spies of both sides have more in com­mon with each oth­er than they do with their friends or their fam­il­ies. Despite the form­a­tion of the CIA as back­ground, and a couple of telling illus­tra­tions of their revolution-toppling, despot-installing meth­ods, it isn’t a par­tic­u­larly polit­ic­al film, but a por­trait of a dam­aged but bril­liant young man turn­ing into an even more dam­aged middle-aged one.

An excel­lent cast not­ably Joe Pesci, Michael Gambon and William Hurt are well-served by Robert De Niro’s exper­i­enced, actor-friendly dir­ec­tion. He really does know what he’s doing behind the cam­era as well as in front.

The Cave of the Yellow Dog posterI can recom­mend The Cave of the Yellow Dog as a rest­ful and benign coun­ter­point to the angry, noisy, non­sense depic­ted in so many films these days. In Mongolia, the six ‑year-old daugh­ter of a her­der finds a stray dog and wants to keep it but fath­er wor­ries that it will bring bring wolves. It’s a clas­sic story told in a relaxed doc­u­ment­ary style; it prob­ably should have been called “Lhassi”.

The Fountain posterScience-fiction; fantasy; romance; oil paint­ing: The Fountain is like no film I’ve ever seen before and seems to have been made for those people who thought that the “Star Child” sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey was the best bit. I am not one of those people. Hugh Jackman plays Dr Tom Creo whose wife Izzy (Rachel Weisz) is dying of a brain tumour. Tom will do any­thing to keep her alive includ­ing exper­i­ment­al treat­ments from the bark of a mys­ter­i­ous South American tree. The Fountain is a film to watch more than listen to – quite beau­ti­ful and quite barmy.

Music and Lyrics posterThe con­tin­ued exist­ence of the motion pic­ture eco­nomy is depend­ent on the appear­ance of a Hugh Grant romantic com­edy once a year wheth­er he feels like it or not, and in Music and Lyrics he seems to be enjoy­ing him­self a little more than usu­al. Perhaps the slop­pi­ness of Marc Lawrence’s dir­ec­tion meant that he was­n’t required to exert him­self bey­ond a couple of takes. He plays Alex Fletcher, has-been star of 80s band Pop! who gets the chance to renew his lease on fame by writ­ing a song for new sen­sa­tion Cora. The only prob­lem is he does­n’t write lyr­ics. Luckily, his plant water­er (Drew Barrymore) wrote tur­gid poetry at col­lege and the rest is thor­oughly pre­dict­able. Not a com­plete waste of time, the faux-80s music is right on the money.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on 21 February, 2007.