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Review: Public Enemies, Faintheart, Coraline and Battle in Seattle

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

Public Enemies posterOf all dir­ect­ors cur­rently work­ing in the Hollywood main­stream Michael Mann is argu­ably the greatest styl­ist. No one at the mul­ti­plex has more con­trol of the pure aes­thet­ics of film­mak­ing, from col­our bal­ance and com­pos­i­tion through edit­ing and sound, Mann’s films (from Thief in 1981 to the mis­guided rework­ing of Miami Vice in 2006) have had a European visu­al sens­ib­il­ity while remain­ing heav­ily embed­ded in the seamy world of crime and punishment.

Now Mann has turned back the clock and made a peri­od crime film, set dur­ing the last great depres­sion. Based on the true story of the legendary bank rob­ber John Dillinger, whose gang cut a swathe across the Midwest in 1933 and 1934, Mann’s Public Enemies is a styl­ish and superbly craf­ted tale of a doomed hero pur­sued by a dogged law­man. Dillinger is por­trayed by Johnny Depp with his usu­al swag­ger and his nemes­is is the now sadly ubi­quit­ous Christian Bale.

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Review: Four Holidays, Quarantine, High School Musical- Senior Year and Suddenly

By Cinema and Reviews

Four Holidays posterDollar for dol­lar (if not lb for lb) Vince Vaughan is the biggest star in Hollywood. For every dol­lar inves­ted in a Vaughan film he returns four­teen mak­ing him a bet­ter bet than Cruise, Pitt, Clooney or Roberts. It’s easy to see why he’s so pop­u­lar – his easy-going every­man qual­ity annoys few­er people than Carrey and choices like Dodgeball and Wedding Crashers are pretty safe. Even last year’s Fred Claus was a rare watch­able Christmas film and this year he repeats the dose with Four Holidays (aka Four Christmases).

Vaughan, and co-star Reese Witherspoon, are DINKs (double-income-no-kids) who main­tain their cool life­style by avoid­ing their respect­ive fam­il­ies like the plague. When an unex­pec­ted air­port clos­ure reveals their plans to party in Fiji instead of feed­ing the third world, they are obliged to make four dif­fer­ent vis­its on Christmas Day, for­cing them to con­front the weirdos, sad­sacks and ding­bats that make up their respect­ive families.

I think I’m out of step with most oth­er crit­ics (not unusu­al and not a bad thing) but I enjoyed myself watch­ing Four Holidays – Vaughan and Witherspoon actu­ally make a believ­able couple and the sup­port­ing cast (includ­ing fine act­ors like Robert Duvall and Kristin Chenoweth along with coun­try stars Dwight Yoakam and Tim McGraw) has plenty of energy.

Quarantine posterTen years ago, before he became the darling of the Hollywood Hedge Fund set, Vaughan’s career nearly stalled when he played Norman Bates in Gus Van Sant’s ill-advised frame-for-frame remake of Psycho. After the see­ing the trail­er for Quarantine, I was half expect­ing it to give a sim­il­ar treat­ment to the Spanish shock­er [REC] (which promp­ted messy evac­u­ations earli­er in the year) but hap­pily it diverges enough to mer­it its own review.

A tv crew is fol­low­ing an LA fire depart­ment for the night when they are sent to an apart­ment build­ing where mys­ter­i­ous screams are eman­at­ing from one of the flats. Soon after they arrive, the author­it­ies shut the build­ing down to pre­vent the rabies-like infec­tion from spread­ing, leav­ing the res­id­ents, fire-fighters and the media to their own devices.

Stronger in char­ac­ter devel­op­ment but slightly weak­er in shock value, Quarantine will be worth a look if you found you couldn’t read the sub­titles in [REC] because you had your hands over your eyes.

High School Musical 3: Senior Year posterHigh School Musical 3: Senior Year is the first of the legendary Disney fran­chise to make it to the big screen but the for­mula hasn’t changed one bit. Well scrubbed High School kids in Albuquerque put on a show which might send one of them to Julliard. The music runs the full gamut of cur­rent pop music styles from Britney to the Backstreet Boys (without the spark of either) and the kids dis­play a full range of emo­tions from A to B. HSM is betrayed by a lack of ambi­tion mar­ried to relent­less, obsess­ive, com­mit­ment to com­pet­ence but, at almost two hours, I sus­pect it will be too long for most tween blad­ders to hold out.

Suddenly posterDepression is a chal­len­ging top­ic for film (the symp­toms are un-cinematic and recov­ery often takes the form of baby steps which are dif­fi­cult to dram­at­ise) but Swedish drama Suddenly makes a decent fist of it. Nine months after the car he was driv­ing crashed, tak­ing the lives of his wife and young­est son, eye doc­tor Lasse (Michael Nyqvist) is fall­ing apart. After what looks like a failed sui­cide attempt, his par­ents advise him to take his remain­ing son (sens­it­ive 15 year old Jonas played by Anastasios Soulis) to his hol­i­day house for the Summer to see if he can take one last chance to heal him­self and the family.

Lasse throws him­self into repair­ing the beaten up old row­boat while Jonas falls for the (entirely Swedish look­ing blonde) loc­al black sheep Helena (Moa Gammel). Despite the appar­ent energy of the title, Suddenly takes its time get­ting any­where but rewards perseverance.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 10 December, 2008.

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: I’m stoked to report that Suddenly was the first film I’d seen in the Vogue Lounge at the Penthouse since my dis­ap­point­ing exper­i­ence with Smart People back in August and, des­pite some print wear, the present­a­tion was per­fect. Well done Penthouse.

Review: Rain of the Children, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and several more ...

By Cinema and Reviews

Rain of the Children posterArguably, the most import­ant film of the year so far opens this week: Rain of the Children restores Vincent Ward’s repu­ta­tion as a sin­gu­lar cinema artist, after the des­per­ate trav­ails of River Queen, and uses the essen­tial New Zealand story of Rua Kenana and the Tuhoe res­ist­ance as vivid back­ground to a uni­ver­sal story of par­ent­hood and loss.

In this film Ward returns to the sub­ject of his first doc­u­ment­ary, In Spring One Plants Alone, a film he made as a naïve 21 year old back in 1979. In that film we watched as 80 year old Puhi attemp­ted to care for her last child, the men­tally ill Niki. In Rain, Ward tells Puhi’s whole story – from her Urewera child­hood, mar­riage to the proph­et Rua’s son, and then the tra­gedies that bore down upon her until she (and the rest of her com­munity) con­sidered her­self cursed.

The full emo­tion­al impact took a while to register with me – long enough that the tears didn’t start until half way through the cred­its. I’d need to see it again before mak­ing the call about “mas­ter­piece” or not, but it cer­tainly felt like that, stand­ing numb in the Wellington rain after the Film Festival screening.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor posterI don’t know what I did to deserve the dubi­ous pleas­ure of two Brendan Fraser action flicks in two days, but I can’t say I’m all that grate­ful. Journey to the Centre of the Earth will get it’s review next week but as for The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor the less said the bet­ter. The dis­cov­ery of an aban­doned tomb full of rel­ics in west­ern China brings Fraser and Maria Bello (sub­bing for Rachel Weisz) out of retire­ment just in time for the magic­al Eye of Shangri-La to bring evil Emperor Han (Jet Li) back to life. Li has nev­er been the most express­ive of act­ors and, luck­ily for him, he spends most of the film under a computer-generated mask of stone. It’s what we used to call a romp and is so stuffed with ‘stuff’ that it’s hard to argue that you don’t get your money’s worth, even if it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.

Taken posterTaken is highly effect­ive, first-rate pulp star­ring Liam Neeson in the kind of role that Charles Bronson or Lee Marvin might have played back in the day. Neeson isn’t as cool as Marvin, but that’s ok as, by choos­ing to play his char­ac­ters faults as well as his strengths, he gives the audi­ence some­thing to con­nect with (amidst all the viol­ence and may­hem). He plays a retired spy, try­ing to recon­nect with his fam­ily who have star­ted over without him. A bit like De Niro in the Fockers films, he’s over-protective, cyn­ic­al and para­noid but when his daugh­ter is kid­napped by white slavers about an hour after arriv­ing in Paris all his fears come true and only he can do the required rescuing.

Son of Rambow posterSon of Rambow pushes plenty of my 80s English nostalgia-buttons (”Screen Test”, cinemas split into smoking and non-smoking sec­tions, Space Dust & Coke cock­tails) but, des­pite that, I nev­er quite man­aged to fall in love with it. 10 year old Plymouth Brethren-ite, Will (Bill Milner) dis­cov­ers Stallone’s First Blood via pir­ate video and is per­suaded by school ter­ror Lee Carter (Will Poulter) to be the stunt­man in his VHS-cam trib­ute. Too reli­ant on the fatherless-child cliché for its drama, and car­toon whimsy for its com­edy, Son of Rambow nev­er quite reaches the heights prom­ised by its cent­ral idea.

Un Secret posterThere’s plenty of excel­lent drama still to be mined from the Holocaust, as Un Secret (from France) and Austrian Oscar win­ner The Counterfeiters prove. In the first film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’s Mathieu Amalric searches Paris for his fath­er, while in flash­back, he searches his fam­ily his­tory for some­thing to explain his own life. There are plenty of secrets to choose from, and one of the pleas­ures of the film is try­ing to work out which one is the secret of the title.

The Counterfeiters posterWhile Un Secret focuses on a family’s attempts to stay out of the camps, The Counterfeiters locks us inside with the inmates of Sachsenhausen and it’s a hell of a thing. Karl Markovics plays pro­fes­sion­al for­ger Sally Sorowitsch, enlis­ted by the Nazis to provide expert assist­ance for their attempts to flood the Allied eco­nomy with fake bank­notes. Sally sees it as his oppor­tun­ity to avoid the gas cham­bers but not every­one on the team shares his single-minded devo­tion to sur­viv­al and he is forced to engage with his own lack of idealism.

Markovics’ remark­able cheekbones provide excel­lent archi­tec­ture to inspire Benedict Neuenfels’ superb high con­trast cine­ma­to­graphy and The Counterfeiters is grip­ping, mov­ing and pro­voc­at­ive throughout.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 17 September, 2008.

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: For once, little to com­plain about. Rain of the Children as intim­ated in the body copy, was at a packed Film Festival mat­inée at the Embassy; The Mummy was also at the Embassy, although more recently, Taken was at Readings 2, cour­tesy of a pass from Fox, Son of Rambow (which was the cause of some con­sterna­tion last week) was a tor­rent; Un Secret was screened from a pre­view DVD from Hoyts Distribution (due to the already alluded to Penthouse prob­lems) and The Counterfeiters was in the big room at the Paramount where it was a little too quiet (not the end of the world with sub­titles) and the print had def­in­itely been around the block a few times.

Non-review

By Cinema, meta and Wellington

This is the column I sub­mit­ted to the Capital Times last week. After a little dis­cus­sion, Editor Aaron and I decided that it would serve no good pur­pose in run­ning it in the paper, but it might be of interest here.

First up, I’d like to thank every­one who voted for this column in the Readers’ Poll – very grat­i­fy­ing. It was very nice to con­firm that one is read and appreciated.

But I’m not actu­ally review­ing films this week, for a couple of reas­ons which will give you an idea about how this thing gets put togeth­er. For the (almost) two years that I have been drop­ping this column on you I have attemp­ted, space per­mit­ting, to cov­er every film that gets released in as timely a fash­ion as we can man­age. Not because I des­per­ately need to see the new Nancy Drew film or Curse of the Golden Flower or Meet Dave, but so that you, dear read­er, when decid­ing what to do this week­end, will at least know that a film exists, what it might be about, and that “that clown Slevin hated it” so it’s prob­ably worth a look. It’s a ser­vice and nobody else provides it.

This means watch­ing upwards of half a dozen films a week on top of a full-time job and part-time study, mak­ing each week­end a mil­it­ary exer­cise in effi­cient time man­age­ment; check­ing sched­ules for every cinema along with bus timetables, work rosters, fam­ily birth­days, you name it.

This year, the Capital Times was­n’t offered a media pass for Reading Cinemas which meant screen­ing options were reduced some­what. If a Readings film is play­ing any­where else in town, I’ll hap­pily watch it at that loc­a­tion (except Hoyts as Capital Times does­n’t have a pass for there, either) but on the rare occa­sion they have an exclus­ive I rely on radio sta­tion pre­views, the occa­sion­al dis­trib­ut­or pass or the gen­er­os­ity of the Dom-Post’s Graeme Tuckett (as his date). With cre­ativ­ity, we get by.

This week, of the four films open­ing that haven’t already been covered, three are Readings/Hoyts exclus­ives which, as you can guess, is an almighty pain in the a$$.

On Saturday I dis­covered that I am no longer on the Penthouse Cinema’s accred­ited review­ers list, I’m guess­ing due to some­thing I wrote in this column a few weeks ago cri­ti­cising the tech­nic­al present­a­tion in two of their four cinemas. It was noth­ing that I had­n’t men­tioned to staff at the time (who respon­ded with a shrug) and in the very same column I praised the new cinema 3 which is a lovely room, beau­ti­fully pro­por­tioned, very com­fort­able and tech­nic­ally excellent.

I’ve always believed that, because of the intensely loc­al nature of the Capital Times, I should review the exper­i­ence as well as the indi­vidu­al film and if the cinema is cold (Rialto), the aspect ratio is wrong (Rialto again), the purple soundtrack is clearly vis­ible on the side of the screen (yes, Rialto again – an easy tar­get as they don’t exist any­more): if it effects the exper­i­ence I’ll men­tion it. Or not. For example, I did­n’t men­tion that at my last (final?) vis­it to the Penthouse I tripped over an empty wine bottle left behind from the even­ing before, had to close the door to the cinema myself once the film had star­ted and, half way through the screen­ing find an attend­ant and tell them that the house lights had come on.

Of course, the Penthouse is under no oblig­a­tion to give free tick­ets to any­one, par­tic­u­larly if they feel they’ve been maligned, but I could have done with find­ing this out before I schlepped my way up the Brooklyn Hill in the rain and wasted my Saturday after­noon. Son of Rambow is the fourth film of the week, and hav­ing been turned away from it, frankly, I’m in no mood to bust my balls try­ing to see the the others.

I really don’t want to sound all “poor me” about this busi­ness, as I say it’s neither here nor there wheth­er I see rub­bish like Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution or not, but it’s Capital Times read­ers that miss out and that both­ers me. Normal ser­vice will be resumed next week, minus any Penthouse exclus­ive product until fur­ther notice, but I’d be inter­ested to know what read­ers think. Do you care about stand­ards, or just the films?

Review: Then She Found Me, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Mrs. Ratcliffe’s Revolution, The Ten Commandments, [REC] and The Third Richard

By Cinema and Reviews

It’s babies every­where in the cinemas at the moment. Last week I reviewed the Tina Fey com­edy Baby Mama about a middle-aged woman des­per­ate for a child and this week we have a Helen Hunt drama about a middle-aged woman des­per­ate for a baby and even Hellboy is going to be a daddy.

Then She Found Me posterThen She Found Me, Helen Hunt’s debut as writer-director, is a sens­it­ive and well-acted piece of work (and often much fun­ni­er than the Fey ver­sion). She plays a New York primary school teach­er whose adopt­ive moth­er dies two days after her hus­band (Matthew Broderick) leaves her. Like many adop­ted chil­dren, the desire for a blood-relative is what pro­motes the desire for a child, but that desire is soon swamped by the arrival of the birth moth­er she nev­er knew (Bette Midler) and a ready-made fam­ily led by Colin Firth. Witty and humane, Then She Found Me is set in a New York people actu­ally live in, pop­u­lated with people who actu­ally live and breathe. I was quite moved by this film, but then maybe I’m just a big sook.

Mrs. Ratcliffe's Revolution posterBack in the 1980s, toil­ing under the yoke of Thatcherite crypto-fascist intol­er­ance, we used to dream of the German Democratic Republic where accord­ing to apo­lo­gists like Billy Bragg, “you can­’t get gui­tar strings but every­one has a job and decent health care.” Now, of course, thanks to films like The Lives of Others, we know that the rulers of East Germany were just fas­cists with anoth­er uni­form and that social justice may be import­ant but isn’t the only kind of justice we need in our lives. Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution is a low-budget British com­edy about a naïve fam­ily of Yorkshire com­mun­ists in 1968 who fol­low their dreams of a work­ers’ para­dise and emig­rate to East Germany only to find the truth very much not to their liking.

There might have been an inter­est­ing story here bur­ied under the broad com­edy – some­times it seems like Carry on Communism – but the tone is all wrong and it feels as if it has gone intel­lec­tu­ally off the rails. There’s some nice archi­tec­ture although the film­makers had to go to Hungary to find it.

Hellboy II posterSometimes, when you go to the movies, you get the per­fect match of film to mood. Not often, but some­times. Last Friday night, after a week where the ambi­ent stress level at work had amped up yet again, I needed to see some­thing that did­n’t require any­thing of me except my pres­ence and I got it with Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Featuring lots of bright shiny things to keep my atten­tion, lots of loud noises to keep me awake and not much in the way of story to worry about, I enjoyed myself a lot but don’t remem­ber very much. Except not­ing that, unlike The Dark Knight’s Christopher Nolan, dir­ect­or Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth and the forth­com­ing Hobbit duo-logy) shoots fight scenes so you can fol­low what’s going on.

The Ten Commandments posterThe Paramount’s eclect­ic (if not schizo­phren­ic) pro­gram­ming policy throws up some odd com­bin­a­tions. The pres­ence of the hideous, anim­ated, Bible-story The Ten Commandments is simply inex­plic­able while Spanish shock­er [REC] is per­fect Paramount fod­der. And at the same time, Danny Mulheron’s lov­ing home-made doc­u­ment­ary about his grand­fath­er, The Third Richard, is get­ting a well-deserved brief sea­son. The Ten Commandments barely belongs in the $5 DVD bargain-bin (or as a free gift when you sign up with your loc­al evan­gel­ic­als). It’s a sign of how our cul­ture has changed that in the 50s we got Charlton Heston bring­ing the tab­lets down from the moun­tain, and now we get Christian Slater. And what to make of the subtle re-writing of the com­mand­ments them­selves: Thou Shalt Not Murder gives you a little more wiggle-room in the killing depart­ment than the old-fashioned Thou Shalt Not Kill. Reprehensible.

[REC] posterOne is either in to zom­bie movies or one isn’t, and if one is one will be very happy with [REC]. Set in a Barcelona apart­ment build­ing where a fly-on-the-wall tv crew are fol­low­ing fire-fighters on an emer­gency call, [REC] at one point man­aged to make me jump three times in less than a second – that’s not easy.

The Third Richard posterThe story of Richard Fuchs, archi­tect and com­poser, emigré and grand­fath­er, is very well told by Danny Mulheron and Sara Stretton. Based around a “rehab­il­it­a­tion” con­cert in Karlsruhe, last year, where Fuchs’ music was played in pub­lic for the first time since his escape to New Zealand in 1939, the film has some styl­ist­ic choices that I might not have made but the heart and intel­li­gence of the filmm­makers shine through. It’s a Wellington story, too, and you should see it if you can.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 3 September, 2008.

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution was inter­rup­ted twice by the house lights (a Sunday morn­ing screen­ing in Penthouse 2, still suf­fer­ing from the annoy­ing screen flick­er caused by incor­rect shut­ter tim­ing and the hot spot in the centre of the screen). And I had to go down and close the door at the start of the film. At [REC] quite a few of us were sat in the Brooks (Paramount) amidst the bottles, empty glasses and gen­er­al rub­bish from a whole day’s screen­ings. <Sigh>

Review: Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The X-Files: I Want to Believe, Closing the Ring, Smart People, Married Life, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and Journey From the Fall

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

Forgetting Sarah Marshall posterForgetting Sarah Marshall is an ideal post-Festival pal­ate cleanser: a saucy com­edy fresh off the Judd Apatow pro­duc­tion line (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up). Here he gives the spot­light to one of his sup­port­ing play­ers: Jason Segal (Knocked Up) plays tv com­poser Peter who with­in two minutes of the start of the film is dumped by tv star Sarah M. (Kristen Bell from “Veronica Mars”). He goes to Hawaii to recov­er only to dis­cov­er that his ex is also there – with her new English rock star boy­friend. Very funny in parts, sur­pris­ingly mov­ing at times thanks to a heart­felt per­form­ance from big lump Segal, FSM gets an extra half a star for fea­tur­ing pro­fes­sion­al West Ham fan Russell Brand, play­ing a ver­sion of his sex-addicted stage persona.

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