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Review: X-Men: First Class, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

By Cinema and Reviews

We’re at that time of year when the big studios role out blockbuster after blockbuster so that Americans looking to escape the stifling heat will choose to find comfort in cinema air-conditioning and we in New Zealand hope that the cinemas are warmer than our lounge rooms.

Apart from the Spielberg/Abrams collaboration Super 8 (next week, folks) all of the biggies this season are either sequels or comic book adaptations, demonstrating that despite all indications the bottom of the barrel hasn’t quite been scraped yet.

X-Men: Furst Class posterAfter three X‑Men films and a horrendous Wolverine spin-off Marvel/Fox have gone back to the beginning in the now traditional franchise re-boot strategy perfected by Batman and stuffed up completely by Bryan Singer with Superman Returns.

It’s 1962 and the Cold War is heating up. In Oxford a smarmy super-intelligent booze-hound (James McAvoy) is scoring with girls thanks to his ability to read minds. The CIA asks him for some help unravelling the mystery of some unexplained phenomena in Las Vegas and is perturbed to discover they get his freaky mind control powers as well as his analysis — and his “sister” Raven (Jennifer Lawrence from Winter’s Bone) who has the ability to change shape at will.

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Review: Prince of Persia- The Sands of Time & A Nightmare on Elm Street

By Cinema and Reviews

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time posterThere’s something quite interesting going on with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time that isn’t immediately apparent from the publicity. Somehow, screenwriters Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard (there’s also a story credit for Jordan Mechner who created the original video game series) have snuck a clever little parable of George W. Bush’s presidency into a big budget action-adventure, past the Disney gatekeepers with the unlikely connivance of blockbuster producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Pirates of the Caribbean).

Now, I’m not suggesting for a moment that this political allegory makes Prince of Persia worth seeing — the rest of the film is so stilted I couldn’t possibly do that — but it does make for an interesting diversion while one is forced to sit through some of the poorest action directing in any recent big budget film.

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Review: Milk, Valkyrie, Changeling, Let the Right One In, Hunger, Sparkle and Sex Drive

By Cinema and Reviews

Milk posterAfter Slumdog Millionaire last week, everything seems kind of old-fashioned. At any other time a film like Milk would stand out from the crowd as an example of quality, thoughtful, serious story-telling. This week, though, it seemed pedestrian, predictable and, frankly, a little straight.

Harvey Milk was a gay activist in San Francisco at a time when the gay community’s few human rights were under threat from the reactionary right. But Milk (played with his usual humility by the great Sean Penn) was a passionate advocate for personal freedom and a cunning politician who made clever and vital alliances across the political spectrum. The one alliance he failed to make (because he had no way of foreseeing that Supervisor Dan White’s mental instability would take so tragic a form) ended up being the one that killed him and it’s ironic that Milk wasn’t assassinated because of his sexuality or his ideas — but because of petty political jealousy.

Valkyrie posterValkyrie is the latest release from Tom Cruise’s own United Artists company and it fascinates me the choices he makes when he’s essentially pleasing himself rather than meeting the expectations of the public. Cruise plays Von Stauffenberg, wounded German WWII hero with a conscience. He (along with what looks like a Pirates of the Caribbean reunion of great British actors) decide that to save Germany, and secure an early peace with the Allies, Hitler must be disposed of. Director Bryan Singer seems a lot more comfortable building subtle tension here than with the bombast of Superman Returns, and Cruise is pleasingly un-Cruise-like – no grandstanding or cheesy grins here.

What I found most interesting about Valkyrie is the portrait of the Nazi bureaucracy — a paper-shuffling, form-filling nightmare; a perfect environment for an ambitious paranoiac to thrive and beyond even a dedicated team of traitors to overturn.

Changeling posterClint Eastwood’s Changeling also shares the subtext of dehumanising bureaucracy, but his storytelling compass is way off this time. Angelina Jolie plays an honest single-mom in 1920’s Los Angeles. Her young son disappears and the corrupt and venal LAPD decide the first stray kid they find is hers and then demonise and victimise her when she complains. What starts out as a thrillingly unbelievable story loses its way early on and by the time we get to the court room the narrative drive has all but fizzled out – and that’s only the end of the second act.

The richly detailed evocation of the period is an undeniable pleasure which means there is always something to look at (for some of you that might even be the skeletal Angelina), even while you are wishing the film would just hurry up and finish.

Let the Right One In posterDuring last year’s Film Festival I unfortunately fell asleep during Tomas Alfredson’s atmospheric Swedish vampire story Let the Right One In but I subsequently heard many great things about it so I thought I’d give it another go this weekend. Guess what? It did it again — out like a light. There must be something hypnotic that happens about 20 minutes in as I lost consciousness at exactly the same point as before. Even after waking up, I found I couldn’t get enthusiastic about a film that seems to take forever to get anywhere and, unforgivably, feels much longer than it is.

Hunger posterAlso from the Festival, but keeping one very much awake, was Steve McQueen’s Hunger (winner of the Camera D’or at Cannes last year for best first film). McQueen is (literally) a visual artist and now a heavyweight filmmaker. In pure art-house style it elliptically tells the story of the IRA hunger strikers of the early 80s who fought to be recognised as political prisoners while Thatcher’s government refused to acknowledge their legitimacy. It’s heavy (about as heavy as you get these days) but brilliant.

Sparkle posterSparkle is an inessential comedy drama about a naïve young scouser making his way through London, meeting interesting characters and finding love. It’s made by Tom Hunsinger & Neil Hunter who six years ago made the well-liked Lawless Heart . Unfortunately, this is a backward step with none of that film’s narrative cleverness and characters that are sketched rather than painted.

Sex Drive posterEven that’s better than the half-arsed Sex Drive which is Exhibit A in my current case against the culture. Decent young Ian (Josh Zuckerman) can’t get laid so borrows his brother’s pristine red GTO to drive across country to visit a ‘sure thing’ he met on the Internet. Even the soppy ‘friends forever’ ending is cynical. These sorts of films (Role Models is another example) used to be made by indies for drive-ins and the exploitation came from the gut (if not the heart). Now they’re part of a studio portfolio and are made by hacks rather than mavericks.

Printed (for the most part) in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 11 February, 2009.

Notes on screening conditions: Milk was a public screening at the Lighthouse in Petone where I witnessed a new low in audience talking-through-the-movie behaviour. Gah! Valkyrie was at the Empire in Island Bay where (unusually for them) I had to go out and ask them focus it. The auditorium hadn’t been cleaned either. Must have been a busy day. Let the Right One In was at the Paramount and the snowy vistas betray the complete difference in light quality between projector one and two (no platters at the Paz). Hunger was in the same venue during the Festival, six months ago. Sparkle was a skipping DVD lent by the Paramount — it was their backup so I hope they never have to use it. Sex Drive was a public screening at Readings where I witnessed a new low in audience putting-your-bare-feet-on-the-seat-in-front behaviour. Yuk!

Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and Aurora Borealis

By Cinema and Reviews

Pirates of the Caribbean posterIs it really only a year since the last Pirates of the Caribbean film (Dead Man’s Chest) ended so abruptly after three hours that it felt almost personally insulting? Apparently. Now the team are back to try and complete the long drawn out story and provide some level of satisfaction for those of us who wanted a little more than huge, episodic, set-pieces that go nowhere.

To the credit of writers Elliott and Rosso and director Verbinski, At World’s End does a fair job of wrapping up the meandering story and the final hour is as thrilling as any in recent cinema — its just a shame it’s taken eight hours of endless double-crossing to get there.

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Preview: 2007

By Cinema

This week’s Capital Times column. No reviews due to the Christmas break, instead a preview of a few titles to expect in 2007.

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