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Review: Julie & Julia, Food, Inc., Saw VI, Surrogates, Tyson, Monty Python- Almost the Truth and The Crimson Wing

By Cinema and Reviews

Julie & Julia posterBack before the days of “Iron Chef”, “Masterchef” and “Hell’s Kitchen”, television’s top food expert was a very tall, slightly ungainly, woman who soun­ded a little drunk. She was Julia Child and in the 60s she taught America how to cook. In an era where tv din­ners, pre-prepared sauces and easy cake mixes were top of a busy housewife’s shop­ping list, Child pro­duced the almighty tome Mastering the Art of French Cooking which went on to sell mil­lions of cop­ies and make her a legend.

A little later on, 2002 in fact, New Yorker Julie Powell star­ted an online pro­ject to repro­duce every recipe in the fam­ous cook­book (over 500 of them) in a single year. Nora Ephron’s new film Julie & Julia skil­fully merges the two stor­ies, freely not­ing the par­al­lels between them, and man­aging to pro­duce a warm and witty film that hon­ours the remark­able Child.

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Review: The Edge of Love, The Orphanage, Babylon A.D., Sharkwater and Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?

By Cinema and Reviews

The Edge of Love UK posterKeira Knightley may only be 23 but (along with Daniel Craig and Simon Pegg) she’s been giv­en the unen­vi­able job of sav­ing the British film industry, a chal­len­ging task for someone with tal­ent but a hard road for a young woman still learn­ing a craft for which she often seems ill-suited. Next week we will review the mid-budget cos­tume drama The Duchess but right now she is head­lining anoth­er WWII romance (c.f. Atonement), John Maybury’s The Edge of Love.

Knightley plays Vera Phillips, a young Welsh girl carving out a liv­ing enter­tain­ing the troops in the under­ground bomb shel­ters of burnt out London. In an awfully clunky screen­writ­ing moment she sees a famil­i­ar face across a crowded pub and calls out “Dylan? Dylan Thomas?” and is reunited with her child­hood sweet­heart. After plenty of flirt­ing, the soon-to-be great poet Thomas (Matthew Rhys) intro­duces her to his wife Caitlin (Sienna Miller) and a firm friend­ship begins, a friend­ship that veers in the dir­ec­tion of a (hin­ted at) mén­age à trois and ends (with the help of Phillips’ shell-shocked hus­band Cillian Murphy) in a hail of mis­dir­ec­ted bul­lets on a pic­tur­esque Welsh cliff top.

Miller’s notori­ous tabloid exist­ence has a tend­ency to over­shad­ow her day job, which is a shame as she is very good here and she car­ries almost all the emo­tion­al weight of a film that, frankly, needs all the help it can get. Rhys is fine (and reads the Thomas poetry like he’s chan­nel­ling Richard Burton) but Knightley struggles, although she has her moments.

The Orphanage posterIn The Orphanage, a woman (Belén Rueda) and her hus­band (Fernando Cayo) decide to buy the decay­ing old goth­ic orphan­age where she grew up so they can live there with their adop­ted, HIV-positive, young son (Roger Princep) plus his ima­gin­ary friends. Asking for trouble? You bet. The boy soon dis­ap­pears, per­haps into a cave beneath the house, and the dis­traught moth­er has to solve the mys­tery of the cursed house before she can find him again.

I would have been con­sid­er­ably more effected by this film if the first half hadn’t been out of focus (and if the pro­jec­tion­ist hadn’t for­got­ten about the reel change or needed to be told to focus the second half) but once we’d got all that sor­ted out the moody atmo­spher­ics (greatly aided by an effect­ive sur­round sound design and the excel­lent Paramount sound sys­tem) push all the right but­tons. Produced by Guilermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), The Orphanage is styl­ish hor­ror with a heart. I much prefer this sort of thing to the Japanese pro­duc­tion line ver­sions we see so often.

Babylon A.D. posterIt’s really say­ing some­thing when a dir­ect­or dis­owns a Vin Diesel film for not liv­ing up to his vis­ion but this is what Mathieu Kassovitz has done with Babylon A.D. Apparently studio-dictated cuts have turned his subtle and sens­it­ive polit­ic­al and mor­al allegory into a bloodthirsty shoot ’em up. As they say­ing goes, yeah right. Freely rip­ping off dozens of hit films (from Escape from New York to Blade Runner, The Matrix and Resident Evil), the cuts have rendered what might have been a campy clas­sic into inco­her­ence but it’s not un-entertaining.

Sharkwater posterMy favour­ite cine­mat­ic shark is Bruce from Finding Nemo (played by Barry Humphries), a mis­un­der­stood killing machine with aban­don­ment issues. If he’d seen Rob Stewart’s ener­vat­ing doc­u­ment­ary Sharkwater he would know that he’s not a killer at all – more people die each year as a res­ult of Coke machine mis­ad­ven­ture – and that he is in far great­er per­il from us than the oth­er way around.

In fact the whole film owes a lot to Pixar’s Nemo, often recre­at­ing fam­ous images from that film and, if it wasn’t likely to trau­mat­ise them, I’d recom­mend every child who ever saw Nemo be forced to sit and watch it so they might turn into pas­sion­ate eco-terrorists when they grow up.

Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? posterAs agit-prop doco makers go I think I prefer Morgan Spurlock to Michael Moore. Spurlock (who sprang to fame with the McDonalds’ exposé Super Size Me in 2004) inter­views people without set­ting them up to look stu­pid or venal and his every­man open-ness gives the impres­sion that he is genu­inely curi­ous rather than embittered and cer­tain. In Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? Spurlock is spurred by the his long- suf­fer­ing girl­friend Alex’s preg­nancy to go the middle east and find out why they want to kill us all. And if he finds Osama Bin Laden in the pro­cess, all well and good. I could have done with less of the cheesy video game ana­lys­is of com­plex glob­al polit­ics but when Spurlock goes out of his way to meet ordin­ary people on the streets of Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, Pakistan and Afghanistan you can’t help but feel a little bit enlightened and a little bit heartened.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 8 October, 2008.

Nothing of note to report regard­ing screen­ing con­di­tions except the prob­lems with The Orphanage that have already been repor­ted above.

UPDATE: A friend wrote to me after read­ing the Sharkwater review in the CT:

I don’t think much of your Sharkwater review. It really does­n’t tell any­one what the film is about and why people should see it, and secondly you totally belittle the issue by com­par­ing it to a kids car­toon! It’s the most dis­turb­ing film I’ve seen all year, and as you know I’ve seen quite a lot. Even now I feel utterly guilty eat­ing fish, though it is the only anim­al flesh I can­’t seem to give up. At least the Lumiere review­er urged people to boy­cott the many Wellington res­taur­ants that serve shark fin soup. The dir­ect­or is slightly irrit­at­ing I admit, but the con­tent is cru­cial… you can­’t joke about films like this, unless it’s garbage (like Where in the World is OBL for example…).

In case you did­n’t get it the first time read this: http://www.panda.org/index.cfm?uNewsID=146062
Glad I got that off my chest…”

Review: The Tattooist, Premonition, Waitress and A Crude Awakening,

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

The Tattooist posterLike a cross between a bloodthirsty B‑movie and some­thing off the National Geographic chan­nel, New Zealand fea­ture The Tattooist struggles to marry the chills and thrills of a styl­ish low-budget hor­ror film, with a sens­it­ive intro­duc­tion to Samoan cul­ture, but comes very close to pulling it off.

Jake Sawyer (Jason Behr) is a troubled American tat­too artist, trav­el­ling the world ripping-off tra­di­tion­al designs. He ends up in Auckland with a stolen tat­too­ing tool which has unleashed an evil spir­it. Is it pun­ish­ing Jake for his dis­hon­esty or is there some­thing else going on?

Not all of it works, of course – detailed plot expos­i­tion is very tricky to pull off dur­ing a fist-fight – but, for the most part, I enjoyed it.

Premonition posterTalking of B‑movies, Sandra Bullock’s new thrill­er Premonition deserves a place some­where fur­ther down the alpha­bet. Sandy plays a self-absorbed house­wife whose hus­band dies in a car acci­dent. She wakes up the fol­low­ing day to find that it isn’t the fol­low­ing day at all, but three days pri­or and hus­band Julian McMahon is still alive. Believing that she has just had a bad dream, she wakes up the fol­low­ing morn­ing to find that it is now the day of the funer­al and one of her daugh­ters has ter­rible recent scars on her face.

This could all be prom­ising mys­tery mater­i­al if it was­n’t for the clunky and obvi­ous way the clues are laid out which makes it seem like The Sixth Sense remade for Sesame Street. But even that would­n’t be too dis­astrous it was­n’t for an end­ing that is so breath­tak­ingly inane that this review­er found him­self hat­ing the film for that ele­ment alone. Premonition will end up get­ting a decent life on video but I can­’t help think­ing that it will dis­ap­point every­one who rents it.

Waitress posterIn Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress, a cast full of well-known tele­vi­sion faces is gathered togeth­er in a Southern fable about liv­ing life to the full, or some rub­bish like that. Keri Russell (“Felicity”) plays pie-witch Jenna Hunterson, trapped in a mar­riage to boor­ish Jeremy Sisto (“Six Feet Under”) and a dead-end job in Joe’s Pie Shack (owned by “Matlock” him­self, Andy Griffith). Her only escape is her tal­ent for pies and, pos­sibly, hand­some Dr Pomatter (Nathan Fillion from “Firefly”). As inof­fens­ive as vapour and about as substantial.

A Crude Awakening posterIf ever a doc­u­ment­ary needed the help of Michael Moore it is A Crude Awakening, a deeply depress­ing exam­in­a­tion of the world’s depend­ence on oil (total), the like­li­hood of it run­ning out this cen­tury (high) and what we can do about it (not much). It’s a hugely import­ant sub­ject but the present­a­tion is as dry as dust which will pre­vent the mes­sage from get­ting very far. Besides, the ines­cap­able con­clu­sion is that an oil-free soci­ety will require a reduc­tion in the world’s pop­u­la­tion by around 4.5 bil­lion people mean­ing unima­gin­able misery for those left behind, and who wants to hear that?

Fireworks Wednesday stillMeanwhile, the vital and enga­ging Date Palm Film Festival gets a fifth run out at the Paramount. One great example: Fireworks Wednesday is a first-rate drama about a young girl in Teheran, about to be mar­ried, who goes to work as a maid for a middle-class fam­ily and dis­cov­ers that the grown-up world of mar­riage has many sur­prises in store.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 5 September 2007.

Full dis­clos­ure: Screenwriters of The Tattooist, Jonathan King and Matthew Grainger, were both judges for the Wellington 48 Hour Film Competition this year; I have been an unpaid con­sult­ant on the Date Palm Film Festival since the begin­ning, though nev­er involved with programming.

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: The Tattooist was an early Thursday morn­ing com­mer­cial screen­ing at Readings and I did miss the first ten minutes due to con­fu­sion on my part over start times; Premonition was at the same ven­ue about an hour and a half later; Waitress was at the Penthouse on Monday even­ing (staff screen­ing); A Crude Awakening was screened off a very high qual­ity time-coded DVD on Sunday night at home; Fireworks Wednesday was also a time-coded DVD pre­view screen­er viewed after get­ting home from Waitress on Monday night.

Review: Eagle vs Shark, Ten Canoes, Die Hard 4.0, Sicko, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry and Destiny in Motion

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

Eagle vs Shark posterEagle vs Shark car­ries a great bur­den of expect­a­tion: Taika Waititi’s Oscar nom­in­a­tion, invit­a­tions to Sundance, inter­na­tion­al Miramax sup­port, point­less com­par­is­ons with Napoleon Dynamite. A film with less heart than this one could eas­ily col­lapse under all that weight but this Eagle soars.

Loren Horsley is Lily, a hope­less romantic with her heart set on Jarrod (Jemaine Clement) from the video game shop a few doors down. Unfortunately, Jarrod’s a dick but she sees some­thing in him and, over the course of a lovely and sad little film, teases it out des­pite all good sense telling her to run a mile. EVS is full of great (mostly small) com­ic moments and obser­va­tions and on the rare occa­sions when some­thing does­n’t quite work it’s easy to ride with it. A won­der­ful, unusu­al, soundtrack from The Phoenix Foundation, too.

Ten Canoes posterAlso not-to-be-missed is Ten Canoes, the first genu­inely indi­gen­ous film ever to come out of Australia. The Yolngu people of Arnhem Land in Northern Territory col­lab­or­ated with Rolf de Heer (The Tracker) to tell one of their own stor­ies – and tell it their own way – and the res­ult is beau­ti­ful and human and scata­logic­ally funny. A remind­er of what cinema can achieve when it is set free.

Die Hard 4.0 posterAfter a 12 year lay­off Bruce Willis finally returns to the role that cata­pul­ted him to super­star­dom (and off the top of sev­er­al explod­ing build­ings) in Die Hard 4.0 (also known as Live Free or Die Hard in coun­tries that still care about free­dom). The technology-terrorism premise might as well be flower-arranging for all the sense it makes, but it gets us to the meat which is John McClane being an ass, tak­ing a beat­ing and blow­ing stuff up. It pushes most of the right Die Hard but­tons, but in the end that’s all it man­ages to do – push buttons.

Sicko posterMichael Moore has been get­ting a hard time recently for all sorts of reas­ons (not mak­ing “prop­er” bal­anced doc­u­ment­ar­ies, not front­ing up to those who would turn his tac­tics back on him) but the cri­ti­cism is mis­guided. Moore isn’t really a doc­u­ment­ari­an – he’s a polemi­cist. In his eyes he’s fight­ing a war for the ordin­ary cit­izen against an entrenched and cor­rupt cap­it­al­ist super-state. Why should he ever have to fight fair? There is enorm­ous wicked­ness and injustice in this world and if it takes Moore and a few low-blows to help turn that around then I’m all for it. As it turns out, Sicko is the best of his films to date with few­er of the cheap stunts that arm his crit­ics and a finale in Cuba with some 9/11 res­cue work­ers that I found quite moving.

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry posterOf course, there are no great­er her­oes in our mod­ern age than New York fire-fighters which is why it was a smart move by Adam Sandler’s team to set their (ahem) sens­it­ive plea for tol­er­ance, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, among them. Larry (Kevin James) is a wid­ower and the City bur­eau­cracy won’t let him make his kids bene­fi­ciar­ies of his insur­ance. But if he goes to Canada and mar­ries his best friend Chuck (Sandler) he can some­how sort it all out. This is, of course, fraud and when they are invest­ig­ated the duo learn a lot about intol­er­ance as well as the, er, gay life­style choice. My favour­ite moment in a movie sprinkled with a hand­ful was the cameo appear­ance by closeted gay icon (and the first Jason Bourne) Richard Chamberlain as the judge at the hearing.

Finally, Te Radar is a micro-budget (and micro-scale) Michael Moore in Destiny in Motion, a thin doc­u­ment­ary about the birth of the Destiny New Zealand polit­ic­al party and the con­nec­tions (fairly obvi­ous) with Bishop Brian Tamaki’s Destiny Church. The irony of this exposé of pente­cost­al polit­ic­al manip­u­la­tion play­ing at the Paramount (a ven­ue that now turns into a happy-clappy Church every Sunday) was not lost on me.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday, 15 August, 2007.

Full dis­clos­ure: Like many people in Wellington, and the motion pic­ture industry, I count Loren and Taika as mates; I used to co-own the Paramount; Ten Canoes is dis­trib­uted by Richard Dalton at Palace/Fresh Films who is also a mate.