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Review: U2 3D, Nim’s Island, Street Kings, St. Trinian’s, College Road Trip, Hunting & Gathering, Blindsight, I Have Never Forgotten You and The Real Dirt on Farmer John

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

U2 3D posterEarlier this year I arbit­rar­ily decided that the Hannah Montana 3D con­cert movie was not cinema and chose not to review it. Now, a few short weeks later, I exer­cise my right to indulge in rank hypo­crisy by stat­ing that the U2 3D con­cert movie is cinema and, thus, belongs in this column. Pieced togeth­er from con­certs in soc­cer sta­dia across Latin America (plus one without an audi­ence for close-ups), U2 3D is an amaz­ing exper­i­ence and truly must be seen to be believed.

I hadn’t expec­ted the new digit­al 3D medi­um to be used so expertly so soon but cre­at­ors Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington have man­aged to make the entire sta­di­um space mani­fest with float­ing cam­er­as and intel­li­gently layered digit­al cross-fading, giv­ing you a con­cert (and cinema) exper­i­ence that can not be ima­gined any oth­er way. Even if you are not a U2 fan this film deserves to be seen as an example of the poten­tial of 3D to trans­form the medium.

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Review: Lars and the Real Girl, The Eye, Never Back Down, Change of Address, Bonneville, ¿La Verdad? (The Truth?) and Definitely, Maybe

By Cinema and Reviews

Lars and the Real Girl posterIn past columns this review­er has pretty much uni­lat­er­ally labelled 27 year old Ryan Gosling as the new Marlon Brando (thanks to extraordin­ary per­form­ances in Half Nelson and The Believer) but it is unlikely that even Brando would have been brave enough to choose Lars and the Real Girl as one of his pro­jects. Lars is a slightly dam­aged young man, liv­ing in the gar­age of his fam­ily home in a snowy north­ern American town. Under pres­sure from the fam­ily and the com­munity to be a bit more nor­mal, Lars finds him­self a girl­friend on the Internet – an ana­tom­ic­ally cor­rect doll named Bianca.

A lovely, sweet film about accept­ance, love and judge­ment (lack of), Lars is anoth­er win­ner in a sum­mer of them. Gosling’s per­form­ance is a thing of won­der but it would­n’t be half as suc­cess­ful without great work from Paul Schneider, Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson to play off. Kudos to them all. Not to be missed.

The Eye posterThe Eye screened in Cinema 6 at Readings and was the most hand­some on-screen present­a­tion I have seen since I star­ted this gig: pin sharp focus, con­sist­ent light levels across the entire screen, no print dam­age and a per­fectly steady flicker-free image. It’s a shame that the film was such garbage but you take your pleas­ure where you can find it. (Flicker is the unac­know­ledged curse of poor pro­jec­tion. Watching a film without it is like walk­ing down Courtenay Place without the wind punch­ing you in the arm the whole way. You don’t real­ise how annoy­ing it is until it’s gone.)

Jessica Alba plays a blind con­cert viol­in­ist who gets a pair of haunted corneas in a trans­plant but instead of the real world she begins to see vis­ions of death all around her. Yet anoth­er tired remake of an asi­an hor­ror (this one came from Hong Kong ori­gin­ally) The Eye struggles and fails to jus­ti­fy its own existence.

Never Back Down posterNever Back Down is the ugly and offens­ive story of a high school kid (Sean Faris), angry and bit­ter after the death of his fath­er in a drunk-driving acci­dent he could have pre­ven­ted, who gets involved in the loc­al fight club and take on the bul­lies using mixed-martial-arts and the train­ing of a wise guru (Djimon Hounsou).

An arte­fact from a decrep­it and derel­ict cul­ture, I hated this film so much I left the theatre and imme­di­ately tried to loc­ate my Al-Qaeda applic­a­tion forms. Irredeemable.

200804101111.jpgBut at least I stuck it out to the end which is more than I can say for the dreary French rom-com Change of Address. I don’t often leave films early but after yet anoth­er scene fea­tur­ing sev­er­al double-entendres about the main char­ac­ters horn (he plays and teaches French Horn) I was­n’t sure wheth­er I was watch­ing an art movie or “Are You Being Served?”

Bonneville posterThere must be an audi­ence for Bonneville, a pleas­ant road movie fea­tur­ing the great Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates and Joan Allen, though the attend­ance on Monday night would indic­ate oth­er­wise. It’s a shame there was nobody else there as there was some pleas­ure to be got from watch­ing great screen act­resses work­ing togeth­er in a story that was . Our trio play three mor­mon women (of vary­ing degrees of devo­tion) who are car­ry­ing the ashes of Lange’s hus­band to his estranged daugh­ter in California. Traversing the back­roads of Idaho, Utah and Nevada in the con­vert­ible that gives the film its name, they meet some inter­est­ing people, have some adven­tures and learn a bit about each oth­er. Nothing start­ling but per­fectly pleasant.

La Verdad stillOpening Thursday for a lim­ited engage­ment is Helen Smyth’s remark­able loc­al doc­u­ment­ary about Cuba, ¿La Verdad? (The Truth?). On an exten­ded hol­i­day in Cuba in 2000 Smyth met a delight­ful old gen­tle­man named Nestor and spent sev­er­al weeks inter­view­ing him about his life before and after the revolu­tion. He iden­ti­fied him­self as an inde­pend­ent journ­al­ist and said he was too old to get any atten­tion from the secur­ity police so he could write what he liked and sup­port the counter-revolutionary organ­isa­tions in Miami. Well, the truth was infin­itely more inter­est­ing than even that.

The film is a lively test­a­ment to a good journ­al­ist’s instinct for a story as she finds her­self unrav­el­ling lay­ers of intrigue and learn­ing about more than a cen­tury of U.S. involve­ment in Latin America – all thanks to a chance meet­ing on a bus. Special men­tion must also be made of the pho­to­graphy, par­tic­u­larly Geoff Marsland’s Super 8 foot­age of mod­ern Cuba which adds so much to the fla­vour of the piece.

Definitely, Maybe posterFinally, a sur­pris­ing win­ner called Definitely, Maybe: anoth­er romantic com­edy from the Working Title stable (Love Actually , etc). Ryan Reynolds (Smokin’ Aces) plays Will, about to divorce his wife. Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) is his 9 year old daugh­ter and, under­stand­ably upset about this turn of events, she demands to know how this could hap­pen. Were they nev­er in love? Will tells her the story of his romantic life (chan­ging the names) so she can see how com­plic­ated grown-up rela­tion­ships are. Which of the three sig­ni­fic­ant oth­ers over the peri­od 1992 to 1998 (Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz and Isla Fisher) becomes Mom? It’s actu­ally a lot more eleg­ant than I’ve made it sound, and well-observed, too, about lots of things (not least Presidential polit­ics). I’d watch it again, and I don’t think that very often.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 9 April, 2008 (although for cov­er photo reas­ons Aaron made The Eye the lead).

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: Lars and the Real Girl screened at a pub­lic pre­view in Penthouse 3; The Eye was almost per­fect in Readings 6 (coin­cid­ent­ally that is the Readings digit­al cinema so maybe the 35mm got a tweak recently); Never Back Down was a pub­lic mat­inée screen­ing at Readings; Change of Address was in the Bergman at the Paramount and the print was look­ing its age; Bonneville was in the Vogue Lounge at the Penthouse which has no digit­al sound and the sound was very poor – blown-speaker poor; ¿La Verdad? (The Truth?) was screened at home from a pre­view DVD and Definitely, Maybe was anoth­er pub­lic Readings mat­inée. I have to say for all their faults in terms of atmo­sphere the tech­nic­al con­di­tions at Readings are gen­er­ally excellent.

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: Hairspray, Ratatouille, Invasion, Next and Romulus, My Father

By Cinema and Reviews

Hairspray posterBaltimore 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.

Ratatouille posterIn 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.

The Invasion posterTwo 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.

Next posterIncredibly, 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.

Romulus, My Father posterBased 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.

Review: The Italian, My Best Friend, No Reservations, Breach, The War Within and Black Snake Moan

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

The Italian posterReturning swiftly from the Festival is The Italian, a lovely and old-fashioned art-house win­ner about a six year-old Russian orphan played by the won­der­ful Kolya Spiridonov. He’s Vanya, a little urchin with soul­ful eyes who sees everything that goes on in his wretched Dickensian orphan­age includ­ing the cor­rup­tion, thiev­ery and abuse. The moth­er of his best friend makes a pathet­ic drunk­en appear­ance which gives him the idea that he, too, might have a moth­er. And, if he has a moth­er then there’s no reas­on why he can­’t find her so they can live togeth­er forever. Highly recommended.

My Best Friend posterMy Best Friend is one of those French films that sig­nals its gal­lic cre­den­tials with plenty of accor­di­on music (though falls short of gra­tu­it­ous Eiffel Tower shots like Orchestra Seats earli­er in the year). Ubiquitous Daniel Auteuill plays an antique deal­er who dis­cov­ers he has no friends but needs one to win a bet. He dis­cov­ers trivia buff taxi driver Dany Boon who seems to win friends effort­lessly and demands to know his secret.

And, like so many French films, the effete bour­geois gets life les­sons from the down-to-earth pro­let­ari­an (cf Conversations With My Gardener, still to return from the Festival) because the life of an intel­lec­tu­al is no life at all. If this was an American remake star­ring John Travolta and, say, Chris Rock we’d call it the rub­bish it is.

No Reservations posterTalking of rub­bish American remakes, No Reservations is a vir­tu­ally shot-for-shot recre­ation of the German hit Mostly Martha about an uptight female chef dis­armed by her 9 year-old niece and the vivid Italian chef she is forced to work beside. This is a vehicle for Catherine Zeta-Jones with sup­port from Little Miss Sunshine’s Abigail Breslin and talk­ing chin Aaron Eckhart and I’m sure most will find it unex­cep­tion­al; I des­pised its lazy com­pet­ence includ­ing the cyn­ic­al abil­ity to com­mis­sion a rare Philip Glass score and then dis­card it whenev­er the need for a cheap pop cue appears.

Breach posterBreach is a ter­ribly good, low-key, post-Cold War thrill­er anchored by a Champions League per­form­ance from Chris Cooper as real-life FBI trait­or Robert Hanssen who was caught and con­victed in February 2001 after 22 years selling secrets to the Russians. Helping nail him is rook­ie Ryan Phillippe who, at first, is seduced by his pious Catholicism and computer-nerdery before dis­cov­er­ing the com­plex and unusu­al man inside. Of course, while the FBI was put­ting every spare man-hour on the case of the mole with­in, sev­er­al Saudi stu­dents were learn­ing to fly planes in Florida so it was­n’t exactly the Bureau’s finest hour.

The War Within posterIn The War Within, Grand Central Station in New York is the tar­get of fic­tion­al Al-Qaeda ter­ror­ist Hassan who, like Derek Luke’s char­ac­ter in Catch a Fire a few weeks ago, is an inno­cent man rad­ic­al­ised by the bru­tal­ity around him. Very well made and pho­to­graphed (HD’s digit­al abil­ity to pro­duce vivid, sat­ur­ated col­ours well to the fore) on a mod­est budget. The War Within is almost cal­cu­lated to be of lim­ited interest to main­stream audi­ences but will cer­tainly reward those who seek it out.

Black Snake Moan posterIn Black Snake Moan, psychologically-damaged abuse-victim Christina Ricci goes off the deep end when boy­friend Justin Timberlake leaves their small Tennessee town to join the National Guard. Grizzled Blues vet­er­an Samuel L. Jackson chains her to a radi­at­or to save her from her­self but he has issues of his own, of course. Black Snake Moan gets bet­ter the more it trusts its char­ac­ters and, if you can get past the pulp shock value, there’s a good film inside.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times, Wednesday 23 August, 2007.

Some screen­ing notes: The Italian screened at home sev­er­al weeks ago on a time-coded DVD from the Film Festival; My Best Friend viewed from the too close front row of a packed Penthouse Three (the big new one) on 11 August; No Reservations seen at a vir­tu­ally empty staff and media screen­ing in Readings 8 at 9.15 on a Monday morn­ing (6 August); Breach watched this Monday (20 August) at the Empire in Island Bay who shouted me a free cof­fee after I bitched about the bus driver mak­ing me throw my first one away; The War Within screened at home on Saturday night from a gently water­marked DVD from Arkles, the dis­trib­ut­or; Black Snake Moan screened at the Paramount on Monday afternoon.

Full dis­clos­ure: I have done paid work in the past for Arkles Entertainment (dis­trib­ut­or of The War Within) and am design­ing their new web site which will be live next week.