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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: Slumdog Millionaire, Role Models and The Map Reader

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

I don’t have much room this week and I want to spend most of it gush­ing over Slumdog Millionaire so let’s get started.

Role Models posterBack in 2003, when the Incredibly Strange Film Festival was still its own bump­tious stand-alone anarch­ic self, we opened the Festival with the sum­mer camp spoof Wet Hot American Summer and good­ness me, wasn’t that a time? Written and dir­ec­ted by David Wain, WHAS was a pitch-perfect trib­ute to teen com­ed­ies of the 80s and his new film Role Models attempts to ride the cur­rent wave of sexu­ally frank grown-up com­ed­ies but he doesn’t seem to really have the heart for it. The gross-out bits are uncom­fort­ably gross, the boobies seem like after­thoughts and the film really doesn’t hit its straps until it starts cheer­ing for the under­dog late in the day.

Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott play sales­man ped­dling energy drink to high school kids. After an unfor­tu­nate (sta­tion­ary) road rage incid­ent their jail time is con­ver­ted to com­munity ser­vice at Sturdy Wings – a ‘big broth­er’ out­fit match­ing mis­fit kids up with respons­ible male adults. This kind of mater­i­al has proved out­stand­ingly pop­u­lar recently when pro­duced by Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and I can’t help think­ing that if he had got­ten his hands on Role Models it would have about 20% more jokes in 16% short­er run­ning time – he really is that much of a machine.

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