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Review: 3:10 to Yuma, 2 Days in Paris, Love in the Time of Cholera and I Served the King of England

By Cinema, Reviews

3:10 to Yuma posterThe for­tunes of the Western rise with the tide of American cinema. During the 70’s indie renais­sance we got rugged clas­sics like The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid and The Long Riders, then in the 80’s and 90’s Clint Eastwood re-examined his own myth­ic West in Pale Rider and Unforgiven . (The less said about Young Guns 1 and 2 the better.)

The past 12 months have offered us two Westerns that are as good as any of the last 30 years: The Assassination of Jesse James and James Mangold’s homage to the clas­sic 3:10 to Yuma which opened in Wellington last week.

Yuma is a story (by Elmore Leonard) with great bones: poor, hon­est, ranch­er Christian Bale is suf­fer­ing because of the drought and for $200 takes on the des­per­ate task of escort­ing cap­tured out­law Russell Crowe to Contention City, where he will catch the eponym­ous train to the gallows.

But Crowe’s gang are on the way to lib­er­ate him and Bale’s sup­port is dwind­ling to noth­ing. The ten­sion rises as the clock ticks towards three o’clock.

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Review: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, American Gangster, After the Wedding, Clubland, Death at a Funeral, Alien vs. Predator- Requiem, Elsa & Fred and Lust, Caution

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest, Reviews

Sweeney Todd poster2008 is shap­ing up to be a year of great films about people being beastly to each oth­er and the first cab off the rank is Tim Burton’s majest­ic adapt­a­tion of Sondheim’s broad­way opera Sweeney Todd. Based on the true-ish story of the Victorian barber who murders his cus­tom­ers to provide fresh meat for his girlfriend’s pies, Sweeney Todd is pos­it­ively Shakespearian in scale – meaty, sav­age, sin­is­ter and poignant.
Johnny Depp plays the tal­en­ted scissor-man who returns to London 15 years after he was trans­por­ted to the colon­ies by crooked Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) who had desires on his pretty wife. Consumed with a pas­sion for revenge Todd goes back to work above the shop selling London’s worst pies, made by the redoubt­able Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). There, more by acci­dent than design, they dis­cov­er that his skills with a razor might be prof­it­able in more ways than one.

Sondheim’s music and lyr­ics are as good as any oth­er writ­ing for the stage in the last cen­tury and the film ver­sion hon­ours that tal­ent uncon­di­tion­ally. When young Toby (Ed Sanders) sings “Not While I’m Around” (prob­ably the most beau­ti­ful song ever writ­ten) to Mrs Lovett you can see the look in her eyes that shows he has just sealed his own fate, the tem­per­at­ure in the theatre seemed to drop a few degrees. Not just any­one can pull that off.

American Gangster poster

The best of the rest at the moment is Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, a pacy and obser­v­ant look at the life of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), Harlem’s most notori­ous and suc­cess­ful drug deal­er of the 1970s. Russell Crowe plays Richie Roberts, the only hon­est cop in New York. It’s an inter­est­ing story well told by three cha­ris­mat­ic film personalities.

After the Wedding poster

After the Wedding is a lovely, layered drama from Denmark star­ring the watch­able Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale) as an aid work­er at an Indian orphan­age who is summoned back to Copenhagen by a mys­ter­i­ous bil­lion­aire (Rolf Lassgård). Lassgård wants to donate enough money to save the pro­gramme – mil­lions of dol­lars – but there are strings attached. Those strings turn out to be less nefar­i­ous than they seem at first but the choice that Mikkelsen’s Jacob has to make is still a heart-breaking one. Totally recommended.

Clubland poster

Totally un-recommended is the Australian comedy-drama Clubland about an unusu­al show­biz fam­ily led by dom­in­eer­ing moth­er Brenda Blethyn. Asinine in con­cep­tion and hor­rible in exe­cu­tion, it struggles to get one good per­form­ance out the entire cast put together.

Death at a Funeral posterDeath at a Funeral isn’t much bet­ter, although a couple of per­form­ances (Peter Dinklage and a doughy Matthew McFadyen) rise above the cheap and nasty script. The funer­al is for McFadyen’s fath­er and vari­ous friends and fam­ily mem­bers have assembled to form a quor­um of English ste­reo­types. Standard farce ele­ments like mis­taken iden­tity and acci­dent­al drug-taking are shoe-horned togeth­er with the help of some poo jokes.

Alien vs. Predator: Requiem poster

Alien vs. Predator: Requiem man­aged to dis­ap­pear from my memory about as soon as I left the theatre with my ears still ringing from the noise. An Alien pod being trans­por­ted across the galaxy crash lands in Colorado and starts lay­ing eggs – cause that’s just how they roll. A creature from the Predator home-world tries to clean up the mess and a whole bunch of ran­dom cit­izens get caught in the middle. All the sig­na­ture moments from the ori­gin­al Alien (the chest-bursting, the almost-kissing a whim­per­ing young woman) are repeated often, to dimin­ish­ing effect and, I know I some­times see cine­mat­ic racism every­where, is it really neces­sary for both malevol­ent extra-terrestrial races to look like big black men with dreadlocks?

Elsa & Fred poster

There’s a fact­ory in China, I’m sure, stamp­ing out films like Elsa & Fred on a weekly basis, mak­ing subtle cul­tur­al and gen­er­a­tion­al changes where neces­sary but pre­serving the for­mula like it’s Coca Cola. And fair enough as these films will always sell: un-challenging, easy to decipher, vaguely life-affirming. Elsa (China Zorrilla) is a batty old woman in a Madrid apart­ment block. Fred (Manuel Alexandre) is the quiet wid­ower who moves in oppos­ite. She decides to point him back the dir­ec­tion of life and he tries to make her dreams come true before it is too late.

Lust, Caution poster

Finally, Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution is an extremely well-made but over­long erot­ic thrill­er set in Japanese-occupied China dur­ing WWII. Stunning new­comer Wei Tang plays Wong Chia Chi, per­suaded in a moment of youth­ful, pat­ri­ot­ic weak­ness to join a stu­dent res­ist­ance group. She is sent under­cov­er to try and woo the mys­ter­i­ous Mr Yee (Tony Leung) who is a seni­or offi­cial col­lab­or­at­ing with the Japanese occu­pa­tion forces. Unfortunately, for them both he is inter­ested but a chal­len­ging mark and it is sev­er­al years before she can get close enough to him (and believe me she gets very close) for the res­ist­ance to strike. Ang Lee is the poet of the stolen glance and he is in very good form – I just wish it hadn’t taken quite so long to get going.

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

Nature of Conflict: After the Wedding is dis­trib­uted in NZ and Australia by Arkles Entertainment who I do some work for; Clubland is dis­trib­uted in Australia and NZ by Palace whose NZ activ­it­ies are looked after by the excel­lent Richard Dalton, who is a good mate.

At present Reading Cinemas are not offer­ing press passes to the Capital Times. This means that their exclus­ive releases (such as Cloverfield) will go un-reviewed unless I can work some­thing out with them or the dis­trib­ut­or. Maybe I’ll just down­load them …

Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Bra Boys

By Cinema, Reviews

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix posterThe world of Harry Potter takes on an Orwellian tone in The Order of the Phoenix, epis­ode 5 in the Hogwarts soap, which sees the magic bur­eau­cracy in London des­per­ate to keep a lid on the news of Voldemort’s return.

If that last sen­tence did­n’t mean very much to you then you will have a hard time enjoy­ing the latest Harry Potter as very few efforts have been made to appeal to the tiny minor­ity of us who haven’t read the books or seen the films. I should­n’t really com­plain too much – the Star Trek uni­verse is one that has always appealed to me and there­fore I get pleas­ure immers­ing myself in it. It’s no dif­fer­ent here, except this time I am not in the club.

For an out­sider, though, this Harry Potter is not a hugely enjoy­able exper­i­ence. The young act­ors, des­pite lots of prac­tice by now, haven’t got any bet­ter (poor Rupert Grint as Harry gets found out every time they point the cam­era at him). Daniel Radcliffe as Harry does­n’t seem to be able to carry the weight of the emo­tion or the action and Harry him­self still seems like a bit of a wimp to be honest.

Which brings us to the story-telling, sup­posedly the series’ strength. Generally, screen­writers will tell you that intro­du­cing a new char­ac­ter half way through a film purely to solve a prob­lem for the hero two scenes later is pretty poor form. Maybe it’s a weak­ness from the books, or a gen­er­al dif­fi­culty with epis­od­ic fic­tion, either way its ter­ribly unsat­is­fy­ing for a neutral.

Bra Boys posterThe pic­tur­esque sea­side sub­urb of Maroubra in Sydney’s inner city is the set­ting for the com­pel­ling doc­u­ment­ary Bra Boys, nar­rated by Russell Crowe.

Nestled between the sewage farm and Australia’s biggest pris­on, Maroubra was settled as state hous­ing in the early 20th cen­tury, repla­cing the loc­al tent slums. Despite the idyll­ic beach­front set­ting Maroubra is more South Central LA than Oriental Bay and, like any kids in the ‘Hood, the only way out is usu­ally via a cas­ket, a pris­on van or sport. Two of the four cent­ral char­ac­ters, the Abberton broth­ers, made it as pro surfers (eld­est Sunny is the writer and dir­ect­or) and some of the lun­at­ic surf­ing foot­age is pretty exciting.

But Bra Boys is more than a surf movie: in its 90 minutes it veers from social his­tory to fam­ily drama and then finally to polit­ic­al com­ment­ary, and the Boys’ story jus­ti­fies every twist and turn. It gave me a lot to think about.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times, Wednesday 18 July, 2007. The Bra Boys review was cut for space reas­ons which is a shame as I think its worth seeing.

Review: Kenny and more ...

By Cinema, Reviews

Kenny posterFilms like Kenny are usu­ally called “mock­u­ment­ar­ies” for two reas­ons: they appear to be doc­u­ment­ar­ies but they’re not really and (in films like Spinal Tap and TV’s “The Office”) they usu­ally “mock” their sub­jects. This is different.

In a delight­ful first fea­ture by the Jacobson Brothers, porta-loo plumb­er Kenny Smyth is a par­agon of a man: he loves his fam­ily; takes pride in his job; and finds the bright side of situ­ations that would force most of us to jump head first in to a bath of deoder­ant. The film fol­lows our hero (played to per­fec­tion by Shane Jacobson) through a few weeks of an event-filled Melbourne spring, cul­min­at­ing in the big one: over 125,000 people at the Melbourne Cup. While he per­forms his (lit­er­ally) thank­less tasks, Kenny stoic­ally puts up with an unre­li­able ex-wife, a co-worker with diarrhoea (of the verbal kind) and a fath­er who is one of the great screen mon­sters of all time (played with an admir­able absence of van­ity by the real Jacobson pere, Ronald).

Kenny is a philosopher-plumber, a bard of the bath­room, and has that mas­tery of the ver­nacu­lar that Australians seem to excel at: “Mate, there’s a smell in here that will out­last reli­gion!” is my favour­ite but there’s plenty more.

Kenny is my num­ber one film of the year and the fun­ni­est Australian pic­ture since The Castle. Highly recom­men­ded to any­one who has ever taken a dump (or had a Henry-Pissinger).

Kokoda poster2006 is the Year Of The Veteran and fol­low­ing Clint Eastwood’s out­stand­ing Flags of Our Fathers we now have an Australian salute to the men who served in the Pacific in WWII. Kokoda is the story of the Australians in Papua New Guinea in 1942, when they really were the last line of defence between the Japanese and the main­land and it is a tre­mend­ous example of effi­cient and atmo­spher­ic story-telling.

The film bene­fits from a lack of famil­i­ar faces as unne­ces­sary star power does­n’t get between us and the char­ac­ters, though lead Jack Finsterer has a bit of the young Mel Gibson about him. I’m not con­vinced that every Australian sol­dier in the Pacific had NIDA cheekbones and gym-bunny pecs but that’s a minor quibble for a film that con­vin­cingly hits so many oth­er marks. Even more remark­ably, the film was made over a two year peri­od by a group of 2004-vintage gradu­ates of the Australian Film, TV and Radio School but it would be a great achieve­ment by any­one, even a grizzled old vet­er­an like Eastwood.

A Good Year posterFinally, Ridley Scott re-unites with Strathmore’s finest, Russell Crowe, for A Good Year, a bosom-obsessed throwaway about a self-involved fin­an­cial trader who inher­its a broken-down château and vine­yard owned by his Uncle (Albert Finney). All involved seem to have spent the entire pro­ject with one eye on knocking-off time and why not if you’re sur­roun­ded by red wine in Provence in Summer? Australian one-hit-wonder Abby Abbie Cornish plays a beau­ti­ful Californian wine-expert who may be Uncle Henry’s ille­git­im­ate … sorry, I’ve lost you, haven’t I? A Good Year is about three months too long but it’s a Russell Crowe film and, by defin­i­tion, they have to be epic these days no mat­ter how slender the idea.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 15 November, 2006.

Update: Abbie Cornish spelling corrected.