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Review: Tropic Thunder, Baby Mama and Paris

By Cinema and Reviews

Tropic Thunder posterYou can forget all talk of an Oscar for Heath Ledger’s Joker. If anyone is going to win an Academy Award for wearing some dodgy make-up in a noisy blockbuster no one is getting in the way of Robert Downey Jr. for Tropic Thunder. Totally believable, every second, as Kirk Lazarus, the Australian method actor (and multi-Oscar winner himself) who undergoes a radical skin re-pigmentation in order to portray tough-as-nails African-American Sgt. Osiris in the eponymous Vietnam epic, Downey Jr’s performance is a thing of wonder: A masterpiece of technique, timing, self-belief and dare I say it, soul. I’m still chuckling days later.

Lazarus is one of a handful of pampered Hollywood stars on location to recreate the last great untold Vietnam story — the suicide-mission rescue of “Four Leaf” Tayback during the legendary “Wet” Offensive of ’69. Under pressure from the studio to get back on schedule (and from handless “Four “Leaf” himself, Nick Nolte, to toughen the pencil-kneck panty-waists up a bit) director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) goes verité. With the help of hidden cameras, special effects and some heavily armed South East Asian drug lords, Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) and Alpa Chino (relative newcomer Brandon T. Jackson) find themselves up to their eyeballs in reality. Comedy reality, which is the best kind. One of my favourite films of the year so far, and I haven’t even mentioned Tom Cruise’s dancing.

Baby Mama posterCompared to the ferocious energy of Tropic Thunder, Tina Fey’s Baby Mama seems like a comedy from a different era. Fey plays über-clucky Kate Holbrook — successful middle-manager in Steve Martin’s organic produce company. Desperate for progeny (yet strangely single), her T shaped tubes make her a poor bet for IVF and the waiting list for adoption is years long. Surrogacy is her only solution and she barely bats an eyelid at the $100k price tag (she must share John McCain’s accountant). Despite the amount of money changing hands it is the surrogate that interviews the, what’s the word, surrogatee and she successfully passes the aura test posed by white trash “host” Amy Poehler (Blades of Glory).

The lively Poehler kick-starts every scene she is in while better-known stars like Martin, Greg Kinnear and Sigourney Weaver phone in their performances. Meanwhile Fey (“30 Rock”) is likeable enough, although the character seems to be in a world of her own most of the time, and Romany Malco from The Love Guru plays the token black character — a servant. Baby Mama is funnier, the more pregnancy-specific it gets. When it goes generic (speech-impediments, Martin’s new age schtick) it misses even the biggest targets by miles.

Paris movie posterParis is both the subject and the object of Cédric Klapisch’s ensemble drama about a cross-section of modern Parisian society. Romain Duris and Juliette Binoche are siblings, single, on the cusp of 40 and alienated from their parents. Duris is told his heart condition may finish him off sooner rather than later and mopes around the apartment, feeling sorry for himself while Binoche (like women everywhere) puts her own life on hold to care for him and her three children. Meanwhile, hangdog academic Fabrice Luchini (Intimate Strangers) has a crush on his beautiful student Mélanie Laurent, his architect brother is about to become a father but can’t stop crying. At street level, the market stallholders are also looking for love in the big city but have a more direct way of going about finding it.

I’ve made it seem a lot more contrived than it actually plays out. The direction is subtle and the performances are involving. It does suffer from the usual French cinematic philosophy, that working class experience is somehow more real than the self-absorbed bourgeois middle classes, but actually argues its case pretty well.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 28 August, 2008.

Review: The Bank Job, The Edge of Heaven, Charlie Bartlett, Apron Strings and Prague

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

One of the pitfalls you try and avoid in this gig is reviewing the film you wish you were watching instead of the one that is actually in front of you. It’s important to judge a work on it’s own terms, as well as it’s own merits, and avoid imposing your expectations but, with the best will in the world, there are times when you sit there wishing that the film you were watching was, y’know, better.

The Bank Job posterExhibit A is The Bank Job, a lethargic caper-movie starring the reliable B‑movie action hero Jason Statham. It has all the attributes of an entertaining night out — chirpy knees-up cockney ruffians a la Lock Stock; painstaking bank heist preparations like Ocean’s 1x; an escape that goes terribly wrong like The Italian Job. The problem is all in the execution: mainly the editing which provides no impetus to the drama until the final third which by then is too late. It’s worth watching for the impeccable early-70s, East End art direction though. The flavour of the times are perfectly created.

The Edge of Heaven posterOnce I’d got over the fact that The Edge of Heaven wasn’t the long-awaited Wham! biopic I was expecting and instead an arthouse drama set in Turkey and Germany, I settled in to enjoy myself enormously. Writer-Director Fatih Akin specialises in stories about the intersection between Turkish immigrants living hard lives in the new Europe but he has surpassed himself this time. Less socio-political than his previous work (but with those threads still woven throughout), The Edge of Heaven tells two parallel stories (that intersect and occasionally frustratingly don’t) about the pain and heartbreak of being a parent and child. A richly detailed screenplay supports the clever structure and the film ends on a perfectly satisfying note. Recommended.

Charlie Bartlett posterCharlie Bartlett is a smug, pseudo-indie, comedy about a gifted rich kid (Anton Yelchin) whose money making schemes get him kicked out of private school and into the mainstream where his attache case and blazer mark him out for unwanted attention. Charlie’s access to the family shrinks (and their prescribing power) allows him to become unofficial school therapist, handing out Ritalin like candy, providing these kids with the sensitive ear that they can’t find anywhere else and him with a role that transcends getting beaten up everyday.

Sadly, only the great Robert Downey Jr. (as the alcoholic principal) makes the lines sound, not only, like he’d actually thought of them himself but that they had occurred to him right then and there. Everyone else holds their characters at arms length and the whole film wears it’s irony rather too consciously on its sleeve.

Apron Strings posterA recent article in The Australian tries to define what ails current newspaper cinema reviewing and one of the examples is “boosting unworthy local material”. No danger of that with Apron Strings, the first feature by Toi Whakaari graduate and award-winning short film maker Sima Urale. A kitchen-sink drama set in the multi-cultural badlands of South Auckland that uses cooking as a metaphor as well as a plot mechanism. In a Curry House on a suburban street corner, Leela Patel makes her kormas and her sweets while long-lost sister Laila Rouass has become a top tv chef using those same recipes. Meanwhile, Jennifer Ludlam’s bigoted cake decorator a few doors down has to deal with her own disappointing children and a changing world she isn’t very keen on. (Perhaps too) lovingly and (too) carefully directed Apron Strings’ flaws are on the page rather than on the screen. Screenwriters Shuchi Kothari and Dianne Taylor squeeze so much in that the film collapses under the weight of all that coincidence and so many ‘points’. They also prove that it is very difficult to write a decent, three-dimensional, white racist character these days without falling back on cliché.

Prague posterAnother example of film reviewer irrelevance from The Australian is the concept of quote-whoring — writing specifically to get quoted in an ad. Well, here’s my one for this week: “I was woken by the sound of my own snoring”. Probably not the fault of Prague, the new Danish drama starring ubiquitous Mads Mikkelsen, as I did manage to stir before the half way point and quite enjoyed myself after that, but it takes a long time to get going. I’m sure there is a lot in there to reward a patient and attentive viewer but, apart from watching one of the great modern screen actors at work, I couldn’t find it.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 13 August, 2008.

Nature of conflict: Well, that gag about falling asleep ended up giving me plenty of grief after I repeated it on Nine to Noon. Prague is distributed in New Zealand by Arkles Entertainment, who I do some work for every now and then, and Managing Director (and all round paragon despite some dubious political allegiances) John Davies was not well-pleased. The threat to fire me faded somewhat when the 4 star Herald review appeared. Which just goes to show that, despite any appearances of a conflict of interest, the opinions offered here are always independent and free of influence.

Review: The Incredible Hulk, In the Valley of Elah, The Happening, Outsourced and You Don’t Mess With the Zohan

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

The Incredible Hulk posterI think we can safely call a halt to these semi-annual Hulk movies now — the new one is good enough that we can all move on (Ant-Man is evidently next). The Incredible Hulk is Marvel’s attempt to wrestle back the franchise that got away from them under Ang Lee in 2003 and eventually re-unify the Marvel universe under the suave, unstoppable box office force of Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man. To retrieve The Hulk, Marvel cast Hollywood’s weediest leading man, Edward Norton (Fight Club), not realising that Norton also has a reputation as a bit of a meddler who then re-wrote the script and sat in on the editing.

The result, as you might expect, is a bit of a noisy mess, but far from disastrous. After a splendidly condensed opening title sequence which takes us through the back-story of the original experiments that Gamma-ized poor Bruce Banner, we meet him on the run in Brazil, labouring in a bottling plant, taking anger management classes and collaborating online with a mysterious scientist who may hold the key to a cure. Unfortunately for him, the General (a suitably comic-book performance by William Hurt) arrives with a squad to take him home. This makes him angry, of course, and unleashes the green beast within.

If anything, it is more respectful of the TV series than the comic book, featuring cameos from original Hulk Lou Ferrigno and a clunky posthumous cameo from TV Banner Bill Bixby. In fact, looking back on it the film spends more time honouring the past than it does driving into the future, often falling prey to cutesy touches like having Norton Anti-Virus fire up when Banner logs on to a computer. Chief Villain Tim Roth looks like Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, which makes his character name, The Abomination, perfectly apt.

In the Valley of Elah posterPaul Haggis created the Oscar-winning Crash back in 2004 and, after helping reinvent Bond in Casino Royale, has gone back to the political well with the heartfelt In the Valley of Elah, starring Tommy Lee Jones. Jones plays former Army investigator Hank Deerfield. His son has just returned from Iraq but immediately gone AWOL so Hank travels across Texas to find him. What he discovers shakes his faith in his country and the military and (I’m guessing) is supposed to have some metaphoric weight about the state of the nation and the world and it probably does. I was one of many who found Crash to be appalling, un-watchable, rubbish but Elah (perhaps because it doesn’t try and do so much) is better.

While Haggis wears his heart on his sleeve, what he really needs is a copy editor on his shoulder. Someone needs to tell him that when you cast someone as soulful as Tommy Lee Jones you can just let him tell the audience what is going on with his eyes — you don’t then have to then verbalise it in the next shot. Probably an easy mistake to make when you are a writer first and a director second…

The Happening posterIf Haggis needs a copy editor then M. Night Shyamalan needs a security guard on the door of his office, holding the keys to his typewriter. The Happening is an eco-thriller about a mysterious “event” that causes people across the North East of America to lose their minds and then do away with themselves. Among those caught up in the mess is high school science teacher Mark Wahlberg who thinks the mysterious disappearance of America’s bee population might have something to do with it.

Shyamalan has obvious talent as a director: he has an eye for an arresting image and has seen enough Hitchcock to construct effective set-pieces but he can’t write dialogue that human beings can actually say which continually drops the audience out of the moment. Luckily, whenever I lost connection to the story, there was Zooey Deschanel (as Wahlberg’s wife), whose electric blue eyes should be categorised as an alternative fuel source.

Outsourced posterOutsourced is returning to cinemas after a brief turn at the World Cinema Showcase. It’s a beguiling tale of a Seattle call centre manager (Josh Hamilton) who has to go to India to train his replacement when the novelty company he works for relocates “fulfilment” to Gwaripur. The usual cross-cultural misunderstandings occur but the characters all grow on you, much like India grows on our hero.

You Don't Mess With The Zohan posterFinally, legendary social commentator Adam Sandler takes on another pressing political issue (after gay marriage in I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry) and helps solve the conflict in the Middle East with You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, a hit and miss comedy that is mostly hit for a change. Sandler is the Zohan, number one Israeli counter-terrorist operative, who is tired of the endless conflict and yearns to emulate his hero (Paul Mitchell), cut hair in New York and make everything “silky smooth”. So he fakes his own death and smuggles his way in to America where the only job he can get is in a Palestinian salon. His unorthodox methods with the ladies soon make him very popular indeed but the conflict is never far away.

There are plenty of jokes per minute and the relentless teasing of Israelis for their love of fizzy drinks, hummus, disco and hacky-sack is pretty entertaining.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 18 June 2008.

Nature of conflict: Outsourced is distributed in New Zealand by Arkles Entertainment who I do a little work for now and then.

Review: I’m Not There., Iron Man, Made of Honor, Dan in Real Life and How About You

By Cinema, Reviews and Wellington

I'm Not There. posterMany years ago English comedian Ben Elton cracked a joke about Bob Dylan: “For all you young people in the audience he was the one who couldn’t sing on the end of the We Are The World video.” Nowadays we have to explain to young people what We Are The World was and Dylan has travelled even further away from relevance. So why is I’m Not There. (the full stop is part of the title) such essential viewing if Dylan seems so irrelevant?

Because unlike every other 20th Century icon Dylan never cared what you think — he just followed his instincts and his interests and the film is an endlessly fascinating portrait of that battle to avoid becoming what his audience and his industry wanted him to become. Portrayed by six different actors including Cate Blanchett and Heath Ledger, Dylan’s many personas still keep you at arms length. I think the key to Dylan is that he is less complicated (and at the same time more complex) than the world would have you believe and he fully deserves a work of art as fine as this one in his name.

I should also point out that I was lucky enough to see I’m not There. in that most musical of locations, the Paramount and it sounded superb. A keeper.

Iron Man posterRobert Downey Jr. is one of those movie brats who seems to have been born in front of a camera (check out his almost perfect performance as Chaplin for Richard Attenborough in 1992). He hasn’t been getting the lead roles he deserves (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was the last one) but Iron Man is surely going to change that. Downey Jr.‘s effortless screen charisma is the foundation of a highly entertaining action movie that is only let down by a not-quite-big-enough set-piece at the end. Billionaire and playboy arms manufacturer Tony Stark has his eyes opened to the evils his products enable when he is kidnapped in Afghanistan. After escaping, he decides to use his technology for good (while still having as much fun as possible). A good supporting cast (including Jeff Bridges looking like Daddy Warbucks) keeps things moving.

Made of Honor posterThe funniest thing about Patrick Dempsey rom-com Made of Honour is that it was made by a company called Original Film. As if! Dempsey plays Tom, super-rich inventor of the coffee collar and serial-bedder of beautiful women. Too late he realises that he is actually in love with his best friend Hannah (Michelle Monaghan, this year’s Sandra Bullock) just as she is about to get married to Trainspotting’s Kevin McKidd in a Scottish castle. Pretty much all the characters are deeply shallow and pretty unlikeable which I’m sure wasn’t the intention and, most annoying of all, director Paul Weiland gives himself the auteur credit of “A Film By”. In your dreams, pal.

Dan in Real LifeMuch more successful, and not coincidentally populated with much nicer people, is Dan in Real Life starring Steve Carell as author of a popular newspaper parenting tips column who has much more difficulty parenting his actual children (alone, due to that all-too-common conceit of a widow-hood). So far, so un-promising, but Dan in Real Life really wins you over with smart writing and lovely, understated performances from a terrific ensemble. Lonely Dan is taking his brood of daughters to a multi-generational family get together in rugged Rhode Island. He meets beautiful and alluring Juliette Binoche and they fall in love, just before finding out that she is his brother’s new girlfriend. Testing times around the dinner table ensue, mostly comic but never far away from deeply heartfelt. Frankly, more films should be like this.

How About You stillHow About You is one of those films where, I confess, my taste and the taste of mainstream New Zealanders diverges somewhat. Ellie, played by Hayley Atwell (star of the unnecessarily forthcoming new version of Brideshead Revisited), is forced by circumstance to help her sister care for a group of unruly clients (a dream cast including Vanessa Redgrave, Brenda Fricker and Joss Ackland) in an Irish elderly residential home so beautiful it makes Malvina Major look like Alcatraz. Left alone with them at Christmas, she manages to transform all of them into saintly paragons of maturity via alcohol and non-prescribed drugs. I barely tolerated this but if you are over 70 you might get a kick out of it — the people behind me who talked all the way through certainly did.

Human Rights Film Festival posterThe Human Rights Film Festival kicks off it’s 2008 season at the Paramount on Thursday evening. While most of these films don’t really qualify as cinema per se, this is still an important opportunity to see the world as it is absolutely not portrayed through the commercial media. Highlights for me include Occupation 101, a crystal-clear examination of the reality of life in occupied Palestine, and Now The People Have Awoken, another perspective on Chavez’s Venezuela which will be of particular interest if you have seen Pilger’s War on Democracy. There are seven shorter items on the programme too: I’m looking forward to seeing Bowling for Zimbabwe about a young boy who needs a cricketing scholarship in order to escape the man-made atrocity of Mugabe’s grinding poverty.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 7 May, 2008.

Notes on screening conditions: I already mentioned how good I’m Not There. sounded at the Paramount during the Showcase. I don’t know whether it is the shape of the room or the PA speakers behind the screen but music cinema has always sounded sensational in there. Iron Man was, like Transformers last year, at a busy public screening at the Embassy which looked and sounded great. Standing ovation from a few fanboys, too. Made of Honour looked perfectly acceptable at the Empire. I am not allowed to tell you where I saw Dan in Real Life as they made me sign an NDA before they would let me in there. No shit! But it was amazing. The print had seen better days but had been given a spruce up by our hosts. How About You was ruined by it being a not very good film but the incessant talking by the old biddies behind me and the annoying hair in the gate finished me off. Penthouse.

Review: Zodiac, Scoop and Reno 911!- Miami

By Cinema and Reviews

Zodiac posterIf, like David Fincher, you were growing up in Northern California during the early 70’s you, too, might have become fascinated and obsessed by the mysterious publicity-troll serial killer known as Zodiac. Now Fincher has turned that fascination in to a solidly constructed but overlong history of the failed efforts to identify Zodiac and bring him to justice called, with typical imagination, Zodiac.

The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Robert Graysmith, cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle at the time of the first murders in 1969, whose obsession about the case led to a book identifying the most likely suspect (and a failed marriage).

One of the problems that law enforcement had in dealing with the Zodiac was his propensity for taking credit for murders that weren’t his and the fact that his real murders occurred in three different jurisdictions, meaning that there was little or no co-ordination and important evidence wasn’t shared. It took Graysmith’s decade long perseverance to at least shine a light on a case that officially still remains open.

There are good performances from many reliable faces including Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo and Brian Cox. Chloe Sevigny is criminally under-used (as she often seems to be) as Graysmith’s wife (but that’s a fault with the true-life story rather than the filmmakers). In fact, this is one of those true stories you wish had been jazzed up a bit rather than treated with so much respect. The problem here is that Zodiac doesn’t do a heck of a lot so there’s no way to ratchet the tension up except with spooky blind alleys.

If you were a Zodiac-obsessed kid like Fincher, you’ll get a big kick out of the detailed recreations of the era. If you are a normal citizen like myself, by the time the film goes in to Decade (and Hour) Three, you’ll wonder what all the fuss is about.

Scoop posterAltogether more successful serial-killer sleuths are on display in Woody Allen’s new UK-based production Scoop. Scarlet Johansson plays Sondra Pransky, journalism student on holiday in London. At a magic show (Allen himself is The Great Splendini) she is visited by the ghost of gruff old Fleet Street hack Joe Strombel (Ian McShane) who gives her a tip: Eligible rich boy Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) is the infamous Tarot Card Killer and she has to reveal the truth and get the scoop of the decade.

With Splendini’s help Pransky goes undercover but finds herself falling for Lyman/Jackman’s charms and dropping the scent. This is minor Allen (aren’t they all these days?) but not without charms and several jokes made me laugh out loud (one of which I am stealing for myself). It seems to have been thrown together a little haphazardly and a cast of English notables gets very little to do except stand around at garden parties — former Bond and Indiana Jones villain Julian Glover gets only one line as Lyman’s father.

The beautiful Romola Garai (I Capture The Castle) plays best-friend Vivian and she will be here in September to play Cordelia to Ian McKellen’s Lear at the St James. Looking forward to it.

Reno 911! Miami posterFinally, in a quiet week, late night tv spin-off Reno 911!: Miami is about as funny as someone standing on your corn (an image drawn directly from life, ladies and gentlemen).

Printed in the Capital Times, Wednesday 23 May, 2007.