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Review: Black Swan, The King’s Speech, The Fighter, Desert Flower, Unstoppable, Burlesque, Little Fockers, Green Hornet and The Hopes and Dreams of Gazza Snell

By Cinema and Reviews

Following up on the 2009 sur­prise hit The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky has offered us anoth­er film about people who des­troy them­selves for our enter­tain­ment – this time in the rar­efied world of bal­let. Tiny Natalie Portman is plucked from the chor­us of the fic­tion­al but pres­ti­gi­ous New York City Ballet for the dream role of the Swan in a hot new pro­duc­tion. It’s the chance of a life­time but her fra­gile psy­cho­logy shows through in her per­form­ance even though her dan­cing is tech­nic­ally per­fect. Maestro Vincent Cassel tries to recon­struct her – as you would a first year drama school stu­dent – while dom­in­eer­ing stage moth­er Barbara Hershey is push­ing back in the oth­er dir­ec­tion. Something has to break and it does.

Black Swan is excep­tion­ally well made, beau­ti­ful and chal­len­ging to watch – and Portman’s per­form­ance is noth­ing short of amaz­ing – but films that aspire to great­ness need to be about some­thing more than, you know, what they’re about and once I’d decoded was going on I couldn’t see enough under the sur­face to jus­ti­fy the hype.

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Review: The American, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, Let Me In, Due Date and Machete

By Cinema and Reviews

I got some feed­back on this column the oth­er day. Apparently I “write well” but I “don’t like much”. Perhaps I am a little jaded after four and a half years in these pages but I am pleased to report that this week­end I saw five films on your behalf and enjoyed all of them. Yes, all of them.

The American posterIn the first scene of The American, George Clooney does some­thing so un-Clooney-like that audi­ence mem­bers beside me aud­ibly gasped. He plays a hit-man who might be called Jack or Edward but is prob­ably neither.

After nar­rowly escap­ing an attempt on his own life he holes up in pic­tur­esque Castel del Monte in the moun­tains of cent­ral Italy. As a single-minded pro­fes­sion­al with no ties, Jack could be the broth­er of Clooney’s cor­por­ate assas­sin in Up in the Air and like that film it takes unex­pec­ted feel­ings for a beau­ti­ful woman to make him real­ise how empty his life is.

Directed by fam­ous pho­to­graph­er Anton Corbijn (The Joshua Tree etc), every frame of The American is lus­cious and per­fectly com­posed, Mr. Clooney makes this stuff look easy and if you’re in the mar­ket for a qual­ity Euro-art-house Bourne-type thrill­er then look no further.

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Review: A Serious Man, Adam, What Just Happened, Flame & Citron and The Twilight Saga: New Moon

By Cinema and Reviews

A Serious Man posterWe’re born alone and we die alone and in between noth­ing goes accord­ing to plan and the people around us are mostly unre­li­able and occa­sion­ally malevol­ent. Meanwhile, God either doesn’t exist or is indif­fer­ent to our suf­fer­ing. Either way, A Serious Man, the new film by the prodi­giously gif­ted Coen Brothers, is a very ser­i­ous film. It is also a very funny one.

In a mid-west University town in the late 60s, Physics Professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) has a happy fam­ily, a great career and a beau­ti­ful house in a nice neigh­bour­hood. Actually, he has none of those things. His wife (Sari Lennick) has fallen for smooth-talking Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) and needs a Get (a form­al Jewish divorce), his daugh­ter wants a nose job, his son is pre­par­ing for his bar mitzvah by smoking dope and listen­ing to rock music and his unsuc­cess­ful broth­er (the great Richard Kind) is sleep­ing on the couch and drain­ing his cyst in the bath­room. At the same time, the ten­ure com­mit­tee at the University is receiv­ing anonym­ous com­plaints and his white-bread, red-neck neigh­bours are mow­ing their lawns in a par­tic­u­larly threat­en­ing way.

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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: Hancock, Meet Dave, Mamma Mia! and The Love Guru

By Cinema and Reviews

Computer pro­gram­mers have a concept called ‘garbage col­lec­tion’ whereby use­less and redund­ant items are auto­mat­ic­ally dis­posed of by ‘the sys­tem’. We film review­ers don’t have access to such tech­no­logy, how­ever, and are respons­ible for tidy­ing our own rooms so, while all sens­ible cinephiles have their atten­tion focused on the Festival, this column is play­ing catch-up with the com­mer­cial releases still play­ing in your loc­al cineplex.

Hancock posterFirst up is Will Smith’s tra­di­tion­al 4th July epic, Hancock. All the major dis­trib­ut­ors know to steer well clear of Independence Day week­end as Smith totally ‘owns’ but that grip may loosen after his latest effort left many under­whelmed. But, what’s that you say? $453m world­wide gross? He turns out to be abso­lutely crit­ic proof and I feel even more redund­ant than usual.

As a Smith admirer, I was ter­ribly let down by Hancock. A prom­ising first two acts in which the eponym­ous superhero-bum seeks redemp­tion under the guid­ance of PR flack Jason Bateman turns to cus­tard in a final third that seems to have been made up as they went along with poor Charlize Theron hav­ing to explain the non­sense plot in an embar­rass­ing exten­ded mono­logue over a hos­pit­al bed con­tain­ing a dying Hancock. Total balderdash.

Meet Dave posterAlthough, not as awful as Meet Dave in which Eddie Murphy plays a space­ship that looks like Eddie Murphy, piloted by Eddie Murphy, walk­ing stiffly around Manhattan look­ing for a lost orb that will steal all of Earth’s sea­wa­ter and save the home plan­et. As bad as it sounds, if not worse.

Mamma Mia! poster

Much more fun, though very messy, is Mamma Mia!, the star-studded trib­ute to ABBA and plat­forms that, in it’s music­al theatre incarn­a­tion, has romped around the stages of the world for nearly ten years. On a Greek island, Meryl Streep is pre­par­ing for her daugh­ter­’s wed­ding not real­ising that said daugter (Amanda Seyfried) has invited all three of her pos­sible fath­ers (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard). All the ABBA hits are per­formed with con­sid­er­able karaōke-style energy from the mostly non-singers and Streep provides a les­son for the likes of Robert De Niro that when you take on a frothy com­mer­cial com­edy you don’t have to leave your tal­ent in your trailer.

The Love Guru posterFinally, let us praise dir­ect­or Jay Roach who it would appear (on the evid­ence of Mike Myers’ new “com­edy” The Love Guru) was the real tal­ent behind the Austin Powers movies. Somebody with the unlikely name of Marco Schnabel dir­ects this one and Myers pro­duces, co-writes and stars in this facile van­ity pro­ject about a self-help spir­itu­al­ist who tries to become the new Deepak Chopra by sav­ing the mar­riage of a star ice hockey play­er (Romany Malco) so he can then lead his team to “Stanley’s Cup”. The most divert­ing thing about this miss and miss affair is won­der­ing why the Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t called the Toronto Maple Leaves – a mys­tery on a par with how this putrid and insult­ing effort ever got off the ground in the first place.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 23 July, 2008.

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: Hancock was at the Embassy. So was Mamma Mia! which was not done any favours by a dam­aged digit­al soundtrack on the print sup­plied by Paramount – very dis­ap­point­ing for a world­wide day & date release. Meet Dave was screened by the lovely people at the Empire in Island Bay. The Love Guru was only on at Readings in Wellington and they don’t sup­ply media with comp tick­ets. Normally, I would work around that by see­ing a film with Graeme Tuckett of the Dominion Post (or, hell, even bor­row­ing his pass on occa­sion) but this time that was­n’t feas­ible with the Festival kick­ing off at the same time. So, I’m ashamed to say I down­loaded it. Yes, I tor­ren­ted a file that had ori­gin­ally been a pre­view DVD sup­plied by Paramount Pictures, with the water­mark pixel­lated out. I would apo­lo­gise except I’m wait­ing for Mike Myers to apo­lo­gise to me first for mak­ing me watch it. And by the way, tor­rent­ing ain’t free – The Love Guru would have cost me a couple of bucks for the band­width and it was­n’t worth that.

Review: For Your Consideration, The Good Shepherd, The Cave of the Yellow Dog, The Fountain and Music & Lyrics

By Cinema and Reviews

For Your Consideration posterThere was a time when a new improv com­edy from Christopher Guest and his reg­u­lar cast of inspired com­ics would be eagerly awaited but as time goes by the returns are prov­ing mea­ger. For Your Consideration could have been the cream of the crop – after all Hollywood, the sub­ject mat­ter, is closest to the cre­at­ors real lives and the tar­gets are big and soft. Maybe that’s the problem.

Catherine O’Hara, Harry Shearer and Parker Posey play act­ors shoot­ing the per­fectly awful Home For Purim when an inter­net gos­sip starts a rumour that their work might be Oscar mater­i­al. The sad thing is that that Catherine O’Hara’s per­form­ance as tra­gic Marilyn Hack might actu­ally have been worthy of Oscar con­sid­er­a­tion if it had been in a bet­ter film.

The Good Shepherd posterMatt Damon and Angelina Jolie star in The Good Shepherd, a worthy American coun­ter­point to the clas­sic Le Carré spy stor­ies of the 70’s and 80’s – “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, etc. – where the spies of both sides have more in com­mon with each oth­er than they do with their friends or their fam­il­ies. Despite the form­a­tion of the CIA as back­ground, and a couple of telling illus­tra­tions of their revolution-toppling, despot-installing meth­ods, it isn’t a par­tic­u­larly polit­ic­al film, but a por­trait of a dam­aged but bril­liant young man turn­ing into an even more dam­aged middle-aged one.

An excel­lent cast not­ably Joe Pesci, Michael Gambon and William Hurt are well-served by Robert De Niro’s exper­i­enced, actor-friendly dir­ec­tion. He really does know what he’s doing behind the cam­era as well as in front.

The Cave of the Yellow Dog posterI can recom­mend The Cave of the Yellow Dog as a rest­ful and benign coun­ter­point to the angry, noisy, non­sense depic­ted in so many films these days. In Mongolia, the six ‑year-old daugh­ter of a her­der finds a stray dog and wants to keep it but fath­er wor­ries that it will bring bring wolves. It’s a clas­sic story told in a relaxed doc­u­ment­ary style; it prob­ably should have been called “Lhassi”.

The Fountain posterScience-fiction; fantasy; romance; oil paint­ing: The Fountain is like no film I’ve ever seen before and seems to have been made for those people who thought that the “Star Child” sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey was the best bit. I am not one of those people. Hugh Jackman plays Dr Tom Creo whose wife Izzy (Rachel Weisz) is dying of a brain tumour. Tom will do any­thing to keep her alive includ­ing exper­i­ment­al treat­ments from the bark of a mys­ter­i­ous South American tree. The Fountain is a film to watch more than listen to – quite beau­ti­ful and quite barmy.

Music and Lyrics posterThe con­tin­ued exist­ence of the motion pic­ture eco­nomy is depend­ent on the appear­ance of a Hugh Grant romantic com­edy once a year wheth­er he feels like it or not, and in Music and Lyrics he seems to be enjoy­ing him­self a little more than usu­al. Perhaps the slop­pi­ness of Marc Lawrence’s dir­ec­tion meant that he was­n’t required to exert him­self bey­ond a couple of takes. He plays Alex Fletcher, has-been star of 80s band Pop! who gets the chance to renew his lease on fame by writ­ing a song for new sen­sa­tion Cora. The only prob­lem is he does­n’t write lyr­ics. Luckily, his plant water­er (Drew Barrymore) wrote tur­gid poetry at col­lege and the rest is thor­oughly pre­dict­able. Not a com­plete waste of time, the faux-80s music is right on the money.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on 21 February, 2007.