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Review: Water Whisperers/Tangaroa, Vampires Suck, The Other Guys and three more ...

By Cinema, Reviews

Water Whisperers posterMy big beef with most eco-documentaries is the lack of hope. Whether it’s Rob Stewart (Sharkwater), Franny Armstrong (The Age of Stupid) or even Leonardo DiCaprio (The 11th Hour) most of these films go to a lot of trouble to tell you what’s wrong with the plan­et but leave us feel­ing help­less and depressed.

That’s why I like Kathleen Gallagher’s work so much. Her film last year, Earth Whisperers/Papatunauku told ten stor­ies of people who were mak­ing a dif­fer­ence, inspir­ing change and show­ing us that there are solu­tions as well as prob­lems. This year she has repeated the ton­ic, focus­ing on our water­ways and our rela­tion­ship with the sea: Water Whisperers/Tangaroa.

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Review: The Painted Veil, Superhero Movie, Sydney White and Four Minutes

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest, Reviews, Wellington

The Painted Veil posterW. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 nov­el The Painted Veil has been giv­en a hand­some new adapt­a­tion by Australian dir­ect­or John Curran (We Don’t Live Here Anymore). Naomi Watts takes on the role of naïve young Kitty Fane (once por­trayed by legendary Greta Garbo) who mar­ries dour Scottish sci­ent­ist Walter (Edward Norton) and travels to China to escape her over­bear­ing par­ents. But she indulges in a fool­ish affair with hand­some Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber) and Walter insists that she accom­pany him to the cholera-ridden interi­or as pun­ish­ment. While Walter tries to save the lives of the loc­als by clean­ing up their water sup­ply, Kitty dis­cov­ers her­self via the loc­al con­vent and an unlikely Diana Rigg. A fine film (with an award-winning score butchered by a faulty digit­al soundtrack at the screen­ing I saw), the images are rav­ish­ing, the per­form­ances are uni­formly excel­lent and you could do a lot worse on a wet weekend.

Superhero Movie posterAfter loath­ing last year’s Meet the Spartans and curs­ing it’s pre­de­cessor Epic Movie, it was with a heavy heart that I took my seat for Superhero Movie, anoth­er par­ody pot-pourri. One name in the cred­its lif­ted my spir­its a little (no, not Pamela Anderson): David Zucker, dir­ect­or of Top Secret!, Airplane and The Naked Gun. As it turns out the few funny moments in the film are gags that could have come straight from those earli­er films (“Fruit cake?” “No, I’ve just nev­er met the right woman”) but the rest is a repet­it­ive waste of time. Why both­er par­ody­ing films that are essen­tially only par­od­ies themselves?

Sydney White posterTalking of repet­it­ive, I got an odd sense of déjà vu dur­ing Superhero Movie before I real­ised that Dragonfly’s love interest Jill Johnson was being played by someone called Sara Paxton who had also been the vil­lain in Sydney White not two hours before. It’s an odd item, Sydney White: the Snow White fairy tale re-located to College and star­ring Amanda Bynes (She’s The Man) as a work­ing class tom­boy try­ing to get into a snooty sor­or­ity. Kicked out in dis­grace, she has to shack up with the sev­en dorks next door (each dork is a re-imagining one of Disney’s ori­gin­al dwarfs – can you name them all?) and then bring the school togeth­er under an Obama-like ban­ner of inclus­ive­ness, at the same time find­ing her own Prince Charming (who even man­ages to wake her with a kiss). Strangely watchable.

Four Minutes posterSadly, I could­n’t bring myself to believe in any of Four Minutes, from the unlikely teen­age piano-prodigy / murderess combo (Hannah Herzprung) or the bit­ter old les­bi­an pris­on piano teach­er (Monica Bleibtrau), or the opera lov­ing but bru­tish pris­on guard (Sven Pippig). I wish I could have watched it with the sub­titles turned off so that I could enjoy the music and art dir­ect­or Silke Buhr’s amaz­ing sense of tex­ture and archi­tec­tur­al envir­on­ment. Every loc­a­tion has an almost tact­ile qual­ity, from the decay­ing brick pris­on to the gilt Opera House at the cli­max. I was par­tic­u­larly taken with a con­crete neo-brutalist con­cert hall remin­is­cent of Wellington’s beloved Hannah Playhouse.

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

Nature of Conflict: Four Minutes is released in New Zealand by Arkles Entertainment who pay me to work for them on occasion.

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

By Cinema, Reviews

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.

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.

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 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 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.