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Review: Run Fatboy Run, Vantage Point, The Other Boleyn Girl, Interview, Step Up 2 the Streets and 10,000 BC

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

My normal, equable, approach to Hollywood blockbuster product has been upset this week by the news that, in a decision of quite breathtaking cynicism, Warner Bros. are going to split the final Harry Potter film (The Deathly Hallows due in 2010) in to two parts and thus, with a wave of a Potter-like wand, make $500m appear where no money was before. Normal service may well be resumed next week but for now I am grumpy and it may show.

Run Fatboy Run posterSimon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) leaves his hit-making collaborators, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright, behind for a while for his new comedy Run Fatboy Run. He plays loveable waster Dennis Doyle who could easily be a cousin of Shaun (or Tim in “Spaced”). Five years ago he ran out on his beautiful pregnant girlfriend, Thandie Newton, on their wedding day. Now, she has hooked up with handsome, rich, American marathon runner Hank Azaria (The Simpsons) and Dennis (with the help of very funny best friend Dylan Moran from “Black Books”) decides to win her back by proving he can finish a London Marathon. Competent and energetic but with the occasional bum note, Run Fatboy Run is like a pub band cover version of a great British romantic comedy. One of the reasons why it doesn’t always work must be down to first-time feature director David Schwimmer (Ross from “Friends”) whose timing, sadly, isn’t always on.

Vantage Point posterThey say you never come out of a film humming the structure, which in the case of plucky little thriller Vantage Point is a shame as the structure is really all it has going for it. An attempted assassination of US President Ashton (William Hurt) in Salamanca, Spain is told and retold from the differing perspectives of several protagonists and witnesses, including Dennis Quaid’s ageing Secret Serviceman and Forest Whitaker’s handicam-toting tourist. The plot is never fully unravelled, though, leaving too many questions unanswered not least of which why Spanish terrorists would collaborate with jihadists. There’s one great car chase, though, involving what looks like a Holden Barina. Everything else disappoints.

The Other Boleyn Girl posterWith The Other Boleyn Girl, The Queen scribe Peter Morgan turns his attention to another chapter in Britain’s royal history: the bed-hopping, neck-chopping, Tudor soap opera starring Henry VIII and his search for an heir; a prequel, if you will, to Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth. Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman play the Boleyn sisters, competing for the attention of Eric Bana’s handsome but unstable Henry (if they only knew he was going to turn into Charles Laughton they might not have tried so hard). The original novel was bodice-ripping romantic fiction dressed as literature and the film serves the same purpose. Entertaining.

Interview official siteSteve Buscemi takes the director’s chair (and stars in) Interview, a low-key two-hander also featuring Sienna Miller. Buscemi plays cynical political journalist Pierre who is forced to interview a famous soap star. Based on, and far too respectful of, a film by murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, Interview feels like a stage play — and not in a good way.

Step Up 2 The Streets posterEver since West Side Story (and possibly earlier) dance has been used as a metaphor for urban violence but in recent years the trend has got some commercial legs as filmmakers realise they can present hip-hop music and urban situations in a PG environment. In Step Up a white urban freestyle dancer (Channing Tatum) tried to make it at ballet school. In the sequel (Step Up 2 The Streets), a white freestyle urban dancer (Briana Evigan) tries to make it at the same ballet school. But she’s from The Streets, you see, and she’s an orphan so she gathers the other outcasts and ethnics from the school so they can compete with the gang-bangers in an “illegal” dance competition. I’m fascinated, obviously, by these films not least the promotion of dance as competition over dance as expression. But I’m over-thinking as usual.

10,000 BC posterFinally, 10,000 BC is fitfully entertaining twaddle. Historically and anthropologically inaccurate not to mention ethnologically offensive, my recommendation is to wait for the video, get stoned with your mates and then talk all the way through it.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 19 March, 2008 although space constraints saw the last few items cut. So, Interview, Step Up 2 The Streets and 10,000 BC are like web-only bonus items.

Nature of Conflict: Interview is distributed in New Zealand by Arkles Entertainment who I sometimes do a little work for.

Review: Joshua, The Page Turner and Habana Blues

By Cinema and Reviews

Joshua posterSeveral times during the creepy psychological, paediatrical, thriller Joshua, stressed parents Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga are told to “just get a nanny”. If only they had, they may have got Scarlett Johansson and Joshua would have become a romantic comedy with a bit of soft social commentary. Instead, they plough on parenting proudly, heedless of the damage being done by troubled elder-son Joshua (Jacob Kogan), until it is too late.

Rockwell and Farmiga are a wealthy Manhattan couple. He investment banks for bully Chester Fields (Michael McKean from Spinal Tap) while she unravels at home. When new baby Lily arrives 9 year old Joshua, a strangely self-possessed preppy child with that inability to blink that in Hollywood usually signals significant psychological disorder or demonic possession, starts systematically destroying the family — including pets and grandmothers — in order to preserve it.

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Review: Black Book, The Kingdom, The Nanny Diaries and Half Nelson

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

Black Book posterPaul Verhoeven is one of those directors that has no hand-brake, regardless of the subject matter. For ice-pick wielding murderers (Basic Instinct) or giant alien bugs (Starship Troopers) this damn-the-torpedos attitude is perfect; when we’re talking about Dutch jews being betrayed by corrupt members of the resistance in WWII — not so much.

Black Book is Verhoeven’s first film in seven years, and his first film back home in Holland since Flesh + Blood back in 1985. Carice van Houten plays Rachel Stein, a nightclub singer before the war, now on the run from the Nazis. When her family is murdered on the brink of escape she dyes her hair blonde and joins the resistance, going undercover and then falling in love with the good German played by Sebastian Koch from The Lives of Others (you know he’s going to be a good German because he collects stamps and doesn’t have a scar on his cheek).

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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.

Review: The Queen, Marie Antoinette, Night at the Museum, Déjà Vu, Copying Beethoven, The Aura, Happy Feet, Charlotte’s Web, The Valet, The Prestige, Babel, Four Last Songs, Saw III and Apocalypto

By Cinema and Reviews

What I did on my holidays by Dan Slevin (aged 38 and a half).

The Queen posterAfter a few days off between Christmas and New Year I launched back in to the swing of cinema things with a “Disfunctional Royal Family” double-feature of The Queen (Stephen Frears) and Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola) at the Penthouse. Helen Mirren is wonderful in an endlessly fascinating tale of an institution realising that it that may have outstayed it’s welcome, while Kirsten Dunst radiates beauty (despite those wonky teeth) as the last queen of France. The problem with Marie Antoinette is that the protagonist doesn’t do any actual protagonising which means that we get a lot of beautiful tableaux but very little drama.

The following night was “Hollywood Blockbuster” double-feature at the Empire: Night at The Museum (Shawn Levy), a predictable CGI romp with Ben Stiller and preposterous time-travel thriller Déjà Vu (Tony Scott) starring a relaxed Denzel Washington. Museum is set in the New York American Museum of Natural History and it does give one a new respect for the arts of taxidermy, the realistic walking and talking Mickey Rooney was very impressive. Déjà Vu turns out to be very entertaining and the twists and turns get quite absorbing — a pleasant surprise.

Ed Harris turns in a bravura performance as Ludwig Van Beethoven in Copying Beethoven (Agnieszka Holland) along with an almost impossibly beautiful Diane Kruger who plays the young composition student helping him complete his final masterpieces. The music is sensational. Late in 2006, the gifted Argentine director Fabián Bielinsky (Nine Queens) passed away leaving us The Aura as his valediction. Starring the redoubtable Ricardo Darin as an epileptic taxidermist, The Aura is moody and evocative but wasn’t quite enough to keep this reviewer awake on a wet Wednesday afternoon. If life wasn’t so short I’d give it another crack as I’m sure there was something going on underneath but it was soooo sloooow.

The five year old I took to Happy Feet (George Miller) was still singing songs from the film that night so very much mission accomplished on that front. It’s a hugely entertaining collection of set-pieces which kind of fall apart when the necessities of plot intervene and it turns uncomfortably dark, very quickly. Miller has had an interesting career: starting out as a medical doctor he then made the Mad Max films, kick-started the CGI talking animals trend with Babe and now tap-dancing penguins. Talking of talking animals, Charlotte’s Web (Gary Winick) managed to squeeze an unwilling tear out of me despite the feeling of manipulation throughout.

On a more grown-up level (though not by much) The Valet (Francis Veber) didn’t pull up any trees and in fact ended so suddenly I thought there was a reel missing. The most appealing character in the flick, Alice Taglioni as the super-model, gets no closure to her story. She’s left alone in her apartment crying. What’s that about? The Prestige (Christopher Nolan) was always going to appeal to me due it’s subject matter and the presence of perfect distraction Scarlett Johansson and it delivered. The film is about stage magic and uses stage magic principles to tell it’s very twisty story – though some might say it has one twist too many.

Babel posterBabel (Alejandro González Iñárritu) is one of the best films of this or any year, a serious, meditative snapshot of our world thorough a stranger’s eyes. Four stories are told in parallel, three immediately linked and the connections with the fourth gently revealed by the end. It has a kind of science-fiction feel about it as we see four very different world cultures presented as if they could be other planets, alien territory yet eerily familiar. If I had stumbled across Four Last Songs (Francesca Joseph) on television where it belongs I would have changed channels after about five minutes, so I did the cinema equivalent instead and went looking for some sunshine.

Saw III posterLastly, I had the mixed pleasure of a “Sadistic Violence” double-feature at Readings: Saw III (Darren Lynn Bousman) and Apocalypto (Mel Gibson). Crikey. What possesses a screenwriter or director to sit in front of a virgin white piece of paper and then use it to dream up ways of dismembering people? Funnily enough, Saw III is the more respectable piece of work as it doesn’t try and pretend to be anything more than it is, while Apocalypto is the usual Hollywood rubbish dressed up in National Geographic clothing. Gibson is a dangerous extremist (not just in purely cinematic terms) and the foul politics of Apocalypto are not made up for by the boisterous filmmaking.

Not seen before deadline: Heart of The Game (Ward Serrill); Open Season (Roger Allers, Jill Culton, Anthony Stacchi).

Currently playing in iTunes: Funny How Time Slips Away from the album “VH1 Storytellers” by Johnny Cash & Willie Nelson

UPDATE: Evidently there is no Capital Times this week so it looks like this opus will remain online only. You lucky, lucky people… Six more films are released this week and the world continues to turn relentlessly onwards.

UPDATE: Printed in the Capital Times, Wellington, Wednesday January 24, 2007.