Earlier 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.
In 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 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 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.
But 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?”
There 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.
Opening 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.
Finally, 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.
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.
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 (Superbad’s 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.
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 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 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.
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.
Returning 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 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.
Talking 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 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.
In 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.
In 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.