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michael cera

World Cinema Showcase 2012

By Cinema and Reviews

After a splendid Wellington Film Festival last year, the New Zealand International Film Festival might be forgiven for putting their feet up and taking it easy but instead they have gone out of their way to produce another basket of goodies to fill the Easter weekend and beyond: the grandly titled World Cinema Showcase.

Arguably the only real difference between their two events now is the scale — and the lack of Embassy big screen — but there is quality all over this year’s Showcase. Like they do at its older — wintrier — sibling audiences are surely tempted to try the “will it come back” lottery but those odds are deteriorating all the time. Indeed, at time of writing one film (Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus) has already been withdrawn from the commercial release schedule and Showcase screenings are the only chance to experience it on the big screen.

As is my wont, though, I asked the Showcase people to feed me previews of the little battlers, the unheralded, the films that are often overlooked by a media demanding big names, headlines and page views. I was given 10 to look at, a couple dropped off as I didn’t feel up to recommending them, but I’ve added two more that I saw (or partially saw) at last year’s Festival. So, here’s ten to watch at Showcase 2012.

Beats, Rhymes & ife: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest posterMusic docos have always been a major component of both Festival and Showcase and several hundred Wellington moviegoers were disappointed when a power cut interrupted the July screening of Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest. They (meaning I) get a chance to see the conclusion of this fascinating portrait of hip-hop pioneers in an uncomfortable middle age. Also dealing with the fallout from success are the folk duo Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, Oscar winners from the 2006 film Once. As The Swell Season, they toured and recorded, trying to ride the wave they were on and keep their relationship intact at the same time. Hansard’s troubled family background and Irglová’s youth conspire against them however and the film of their post-Oscar lives is more about a relationship fizzling out than your usual rock documentary. Which is good because there’s nothing startling about the music.

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Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The Collector, Skin & I, Don Giovanni

By Cinema and Reviews

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World posterYour correspondent is a big fan of young English director Edgar Wright. His first two features, in collaboration with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, were the redoubtably entertaining Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. There’s a wonderful percussive energy to Wright’s filmmaking which brooks no boredom. So, I was looking forward to his latest film, the heavily promoted comic book adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs. the World which opened worldwide this week. And I really wanted to like it. No, strike that. I did like it. I just didn’t love it the way the film so desperately wants to be loved.

Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera from Juno) is a young Toronto slacker who plays bass in a terrible band and has just begun dating a high school girl. If he seems without much in the way of ambition that may be because he is still grieving after being dumped a year ago, or it may be that he simply lacks ambition.

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Review: G-Force, Shorts, The Secret of Moonacre, Ponyo, Year One, Fame, Every Little Step, Disgrace, North Face and Cheri

By Cinema and Reviews

So, it’s the school holidays and the nippers are bouncing off the walls. You’re not allowed to just leave them in the car while you play the pokies anymore so it’s time to get creative. There are plenty of kid-friendly movie options around and the only drawback is that you might have to sit and watch with them.

G-Force posterIn G‑Force 3D guinea pigs save the world from – actually I can’t tell you as the twist is quite a good one. A top secret research project involving Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover) and rodents with the voices of Nic Cage, Sam Rockwell and Penélope Cruz is pressed into service when an entire consumer brand (toasters, coffee makers, etc) goes berserk. The animation is first class (and CGI rodents are always cute) but the film as a whole never really gets going. It’s a Bruckheimer production so was probably consumer tested beyond endurance.

Shorts posterAnother fictional consumer brand gets a pummelling in this new era of anti-commercialism in Shorts , Robert Rodriguez’ spunky and inventive, low budget effort. Black Industries make a Black Box – an all-in-one portable everything device that turns out not to be nearly as cool as the rainbow magic wishing stone that causes havoc everywhere it goes. Pitched slightly younger than G‑Force, and without the polish, it is still worth a look.

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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.

Review: Superbad, I Do, Perfume- The Story of a Murderer, Evan Almighty and The Future is Unwritten

By Cinema and Reviews

Superbad posterWhen 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 posterI 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 be the way of things in French cinema recently Costa hires a stranger to pretend to be his fiancee 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.

Perfume posterSurely 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.

Evan Almighty posterThe 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.

Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten posterPunk 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.