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.
In 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.
Another 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.
Ron Howard’s Angels & Demons, sequel to the blockbuster Da Vinci Code from 2006, is what you might call an equal opportunity annoyance — happily misrepresenting theology and science.
Tom Hanks returns as Harvard scholar Robert Langdon, this time summoned to Rome by mysterious Vatican security to investigate the kidnapping of four Cardinals on the eve of the election of a new Pope. A clue (helpfully reading “illuminati”) leads him to believe that a the secret society of scientists and truth-tellers have come to take revenge for their 17th century purging. The Large Hadron Collider (actually working in this piece of fiction) creates a macguffin that could change the shape of Rome as we know it — if not the world.
In 2003 the paper-thin romantic comedy How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days paired Matthew McConaughey with Kate Hudson and made over 100 million dollars. The rules of Hollywood economics, plus the overwhelming dictates of focus groups and researchers, meant they would have to be reunited. So, as soon as Hudson’s baby-body was fit to be seen in a tiny bikini, they were off to the Bahamas to make Fool’s Gold, a buried treasure adventure set among the rich and beautiful.
McConaughey plays “Finn” Finnegan, a treasure hunter, and Hudson his soon-to-be ex-wife. She’s divorcing him because she’s a tight-ass and wants to finish her PhD. He is hopelessly in debt to hip-hop superstar Bigg Bunny who has been funding his search for lost Spanish gold. When he discovers a dinner plate sized clue he suckers Hudson and super yacht owner Donald Sutherland into joining the search, despite the violent attentions of Mr Bunny and competition from dodgy accented Ray Winstone.
Matthew McConaughey isn’t the laziest of our male Hollywood stars (Nic Cage takes that prize) but he has coasted for an enormous amount of time on what some might see as charm alone. Fool’s Gold doesn’t change that approach and your enjoyment will depend entirely on how much you appreciate McConaughey’s charisma as there isn’t much else to enjoy. Despite the Caribbean setting all the black characters are either villains or buffoons or both, Bigg Bunny (Kevin Hart) alone manages to supply two objectionable stereotypes at once. I hope that isn’t the result of a Hollywood focus group.
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story tells a heart-rending, and repairing, story of tragedy and redemption in the music business. Inspired by classy bio-pics like Walk the Line and Ray (and even La Vie En Rose, probably), Walk Hard stars perennial sidekick John C. Reilly as the eponymous Dewey, dumber than a sack of hammers but with a heart of lead, as he overcomes the tragic death of his brother in a machete accident (“the wrong kid died”, says his stone-faced father at every opportunity), the loss of his sense of smell and addiction to every substance on the planet short of cinnamon.
Films like Walk Hard are always hit and miss affairs and this one runs about 50–50. The targets are pretty soft, however, and I’d hoped that a writing team that includes Judd (Knocked Up) Apatow might have aimed a little higher. The best things in the film are the songs, well sung by the talented Reilly: my favourite is the 60s pro-midget protest song “Let Me Hold You, Little Man”.
It’s very hard to focus on a film when you spend most of it shaking your head in disbelief. Air Guitar Nation is a documentary following the first two American contenders in the well-established World Air Guitar Championship in Finland. The Yanks may have invented Rock but they have come second to the Air Guitar party, struggling with the more high-level concepts (“You can’t hold a gun, if you’ve got an air guitar in your hand”) and the serious intent of the Northern Europeans. But they do have old-fashioned showmanship on their side. Diverting.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 13 February, 2008.
Keen-eyed readers will remember that a year ago I nominated The Golden Compass as my most-eagerly-awaited title of 2007. So, how did it pan out? I’m one of those who consider Philip Pulman’s His Dark Materials books to be the most important works of fiction produced in the last 20 years and I was surprised at how closely the film followed Book One (“Northern Lights”), possibly to it’s detriment. I was worried that a film with much exposition and detailed scene-setting might prove unwatchable but my companion (unfamiliar with the books) found it thrilling whereas I found it hard to let myself go and relax into it — maybe second time around.
Disney’s Enchanted saw Amy Adams reprise her Oscar-nominated wide-eyed naïf from Junebug. Unfortunately, as Princess Giselle from the animated kingdom of Andalasia, she couldn’t overcome the collective blandness of James Marsden as fictional-world love interest or Patrick Dempsey as real-world love interest; diversions were provided by Timothy Spall and the first of several animated chipmunks to land this Christmas.
The next fluffy rodents to arrive were the “singing” trio from Alvin and the Chipmunks, a recreation of someone’s favourite childhood pop butchers. Jason Lee is a waste of space as the songwriter who discovers them but the little critters themselves will keep your inner 8‑year-old amused for a while.
Also for the kids was the well-meaning but slightly po-faced Loch Ness monster fantasy The Water Horse, another high-class product of the family-friendly Walden Media/Weta/NZ confederation. A tremendous overseas cast led by Ben Chaplin and Emily Watson are joined by familiar and reliable local faces like Joel Tobeck and Geraldine Brophy.
National Treasure: Book of Secrets saw Nicolas Cage arise from his coma and make a little more of an effort than he did earlier this year in Next: it’s a noisy romp in which unlikely characters and implausible situations combine to bamboozle any seeker after logic. Helen Mirren, Harvey Keitel and Ed Harris add gravitas.
Will Smith returned in the oft-made man alone thriller I Am Legend, a perfect example of a poor script made palatable by classy direction and a superb leading man at the top of his game. Smith plays Lt-Col Robert Neville: decorated war veteran, ace micro-biologist and (judging by his address opposite the Washington Square Arch) heir to the Rockefeller fortune too. A genetically mutated virus that was supposed to cure cancer has gone rogue. 99% of the population has died, 1% have turned into bloodthirsty zombies and only one man is immune – handily for our purposes the one man who might know how to create a vaccine. Lots of frights, lots of great action and a magnificently seamless creation of abandoned New York make it certainly worth a look. At least until the last 15 minutes when, sadly, it just gets stupid.
Finally, to the arthouse: Sweet Land is an unheralded gem set in beautiful rural Minnesota among the Northern European immigrants who were making their lives on that land in the first quarter of the last century. Elizabeth Reaser plays German immigrant Inge who travels from Germany to meet Lars, the man who is to be her husband. But she speaks no English, has no papers and the locals are suspicious of Germans – the marriage is forbidden. True love conquers all but not before the bitter sweet tale ties three generations and the fertile farmland together. Recommended.
A monument to the Digital Intermediate Colourist’s art, The Kite Runner is an adaptation of the beloved novel by Khaled Hosseini, directed by Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, currently shooting the new Bond). Affecting but manipulative, The Kite Runner is a story of guilt and redemption (usually catnip to me) but in the end it relied too much on outrageous coincidence to be truly satisfying. Great performances from Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada as Young Hassan and Homayoun Ershadi as Baba mean it is never less than watchable.
Priceless is yet another French film about mistaken identity and class restrictions: they seem to be more obsessed about class and status than the poms. Gad Elmaleh (The Valet) and Amelie’s Audrey Tautou play two ambitious individuals from the serving class: he walks dogs and tends bar at a flash hotel and she is a gold digger trying to snare a rich old husband. The fact that both actors are of North African descent (and therefore are excluded from the ranks of the real French who sit at the top table) is either a subtle stroke of genius or dodgy racism depending on the degree of Christmas spirit you want to demonstrate.
Finally, The Darjeeling Limited is a winning tale of lost young men, searching for a father figure, from the modern day poet of father figure searches, Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic). There’s no great thematic or stylistic leap made by Anderson here but he is honing this stuff to a fine art. Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman are three brothers on a spiritual journey across India but it is the recently deceased father who casts the longest shadow. Well made and often very funny, The Darjeeling Limited is very easy to enjoy and Anderson’s taste is exquisite.
To be printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday, 16 Jan, 2008. I am taking a weekend off, away from the Internet and cinema so will catch up with the week’s new releases next week.
Baltimore in the 60s must have been quite a place as it has inspired films like Barry Levinson’s Diner and Tin Men as well as the entire John Waters canon, from Mondo Trasho and Pink Flamingos to Hairspray and Cry-Baby in the 90s. Now Waters’ transgressive vision of outsider-dom has been absorbed in to the mainstream with the sanitised, PG, version of Hairspray, now transformed in to a Broadway musical and back on the screen. Full of stars having a gay old time, including the rarely seen Michelle Pfeiffer, Hairspray The Musical is a lot of fun and if the kids who enjoy it look up John Waters on the internet that would be a good thing too.
In Ratatouille, there’s a lovely moment when Remy, a French rat with a nose for fine food, discovers the beautiful possibilities of mixing flavours and a passion for fine cooking begins. The animation is beyond anything yet seen and the eye for the detail and respect for the kitchen is extraordinary — the chefs have scars on their hands and burns on their wrists — but the story doesn’t quite measure up to the technical achievement. Pretty entertaining, all the same.
Two films released this week go to prove that, even with millions of dollars of studio backing, making a film is very difficult indeed if you don’t really know why you’re doing it. The Invasion is a remake of two classic paranoid science-fiction films, both called The Invasion of The Body Snatchers, and stars Nicole Kidman as a psychiatrist trying to save her son who may be immune to the alien virus that is taking over the planet. While The Invasion may confirm everything you have always suspected about hotel catering, that may be all it is good for. A complete failure on almost every level.
Incredibly, The Invasion wasn’t even the worst film I saw that day. Lee Tamahori’s Next was even more listless than The Invasion and nobody involved looked even slightly engaged. A rogue nuke is missing somewhere in the continental United States and rogue FBI agent Julianne Moore manages to divert the entire investigation into finding Las Vegas magician Nicolas Cage because he has the ability to see two minutes into the future.
Meanwhile, the Russians and the French who have the nuke are also after Cage for no reason at all that I could work out. At one point an FBI agent watching Cage on a surveillance monitor exclaimed “Can you believe this shit?” and someone in the audience yelled “No!”. Actually, on reflection, that might have been me. Sorry.
Based on a best-selling memoir by successful academic and philosopher Raimond Gaita, Romulus, My Father is the story of a difficult childhood in 1960s rural Victoria. Both Gaita’s parents were Romanian immigrants, and due to the isolation, or perhaps some inherently Balkan moodiness, they both struggled with severe depression. Gaita’s mother (Run, Lola, Run’s Franka Potente) wasn’t really into being a mother until it was too late and his father (Eric Bana) never gets over the heartbreak of her abandonment.
The film is directed by actor Richard Roxburgh and his respect for his cast means we often linger a little longer on them than is necessary and the Victorian State by-law that says every film shot in the hinterland has to look like an oil painting is in full effect.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday, 12 September, 2007.
Notes on screening conditions: Hairspray viewed at a Sunday afternoon MoreFM radio preview at Readings (free haircare products — woohoo); Ratatouille screened commercially at a strangely not full session at the Empire in Island Bay on Friday night; The Invasion and Next were viewed at the earliest possible commercial screenings at Readings last Thursday beside Dom-Post reviewer Graeme Tuckett and Romulus, My Father was at the Penthouse on Monday afternoon and the print was in the poorest condition of any release print I have seen — looked like a gang of luminous green wasps in the middle of the screen.