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Review: The Master, Gangster Squad, Whole Lotta Sole, ParaNorman and To Rome With Love

By Cinema and Reviews

Between its her­al­ded US release in September last year and its arrival in a (very) lim­ited num­ber of New Zealand cinemas this week­end, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master seems to have been trans­formed from mas­ter­piece and annoin­ted Best Picture con­tender to also-ran, dis­ap­point­ing scores of loc­al PTA fans in the pro­cess, many of whom were crushed that we weren’t going to see the film in the director’s pre­ferred 70mm format. Turns out it was touch and go wheth­er we were going to see it on the big screen at all.

Anderson’s pre­vi­ous film, There Will Be Blood, was a close-run second to No Country For Old Men in my 2007 pick of the year, and his back cata­logue is as rich as any­one else of his gen­er­a­tion – Boogie Nights, Magnolia and even Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love. Like Blood, The Master is painted on a big can­vas. Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, an alco­hol­ic and self-hating WWII vet­er­an, stum­bling between mis­ad­ven­tures when he stows away on the San Francisco yacht com­manded by aca­dem­ic, author and mys­tic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd com­bines rudi­ment­ary psy­cho­ther­apy with hyp­nosis to per­suade gull­ible fol­low­ers that their past lives can be used to trans­form their dis­ap­point­ing present.

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2012 Wellington Cinema Year in Review

By Cinema

This Must Be the Place posterAs usu­al, the vagar­ies of hol­i­day dead­lines mean that, just as you are arriv­ing back at work to glee­fully greet the New Year, here I am to tell you all about 2012. The best way to use this page is to clip it out, fold it up and put it in your pock­et ready for your next vis­it to the video shop – that way you won’t go wrong with your rent­ing. Trust me – I’m a professional.

But this year I have a prob­lem. Usually I man­age to restrict my annu­al picks to films that were com­mer­cially released to cinemas. I’ve always felt that it wasn’t fair to men­tion films that only screened in fest­ivals – it’s frus­trat­ing to be told about films that aren’t easy to see and it makes it dif­fi­cult for you to join in and share the love. This year, though, if I take out the festival-only films the great­ness is hard to spot among the only “good”.

As usu­al, I have eschewed a top ten in favour of my pat­en­ted cat­egor­ies: Keepers, Watch Again, Mentioned in Dispatches and Shun At All Costs. In 2012, only two of my nine Keepers (films I wish to have close to me forever) made it into com­mer­cial cinemas and one of them isn’t even really a film.

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Review: 127 Hours, Gnomeo & Juliet, No Strings Attached and Fair Game

By Cinema and Reviews

127 Hours posterDanny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire was my film of the year for 2009 – a potent and punchy roller-coaster ride of a film that made everything for months after­wards seem quaintly old-fashioned. His new film, 127 Hours, doesn’t break the mould to quite the same degree but does fea­ture sim­il­ar styl­ist­ic effects: mess­ing with time and struc­ture, split-screens, dom­in­eer­ing soundtrack, etc.

The new film is also an adapt­a­tion of pre­vi­ously exist­ing mater­i­al, Aron Ralston’s mem­oir “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”, and once again Boyle has col­lab­or­ated with screen­writer Simon Beaufoy (notori­ous in New Zealand for The Full Monty). Ralston (played by James Franco) was an engin­eer by trade but an out­doors­man by inclin­a­tion and he loved to roam the Utah canyons on bike and on foot. In 2003 he fall into a nar­row rav­ine and his right arm was trapped by a boulder. He was there for five days before real­ising that the only way he was going to walk out was if he left the arm behind.

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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!

Cinema: Best of 2007

By Cinema

And so, after 191 films viewed and reviewed here I get to sum up the 2007 cinema year. As I said back in September it’s been a great year for good films but a poor year for truly great ones. Even my (obvi­ously unim­peach­able) Top Ten list con­tains only a few that I think will be regarded as clas­sics in 20 years but these are all films that I’d hap­pily see again or even own on DVD if the chance arises.

Into the Wild posterBest of the year turns out to be the most recent: Sean Penn’s Into the Wild is the real deal. As beau­ti­ful to look at and listen to as the finest art film, but remain­ing down to earth, it fea­tures a star-making per­form­ance from Emile Hirsch lead­ing an ensemble of fine screen act­ors and it ulti­mately deliv­ers a mes­sage that is com­pletely dif­fer­ent to the one you expect: He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.

Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait posterThe next two selec­tions are also not­able for being the lowest-grossing films of the year: the mes­mer­ising Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait fol­lowed one man around a foot­ball pitch for an entire match and the won­drous and glow­ing abori­gin­al film Ten Canoes reminded us that great story-telling can be found any­where, from the camp fire to the mul­ti­plex. The finest per­form­ances of the year from grown-ups were found in Sarah Polley’s Away From Her. Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie were a couple reel­ing from the impact of Alzheimer’s: the pres­sure of the dis­ease slowly unrav­el­ling a rela­tion­ship that on the sur­face seemed so pure. Best per­form­ance of the year from any­one was little Kolya Spiridonov as “orphan” Vanya in The Italian, determ­ined to find his Mother wherever she may be rather than go to the west with new parents.

Deep Water posterBest doc­u­ment­ary turned out to be the unprom­ising Deep Water: a film about a yacht race that ended up being about the deep­est, darkest secrets kept by a fra­gile human soul – it was even bet­ter second time around. Atonement was a sweep­ing and romantic drama show­cas­ing the many skills of the latest gen­er­a­tion of British movie craftspeople, not least dir­ect­or Joe Wright who, annoy­ingly, is only 36 years old. Best loc­al film in an uneven year (and jus­ti­fi­ably in this Top Ten) is Taika Waititi’s Eagle vs. Shark: funny and sweet and sad and the product of a sin­gu­lar vis­ion rather than the com­mit­tee that seems to pro­duce so many New Zealand films.

Knocked Up posterMy favour­ite com­mer­cial film of the year was the sweet-natured and very funny Knocked Up about a slack­er and a career-girl get­ting to grips with respons­ib­il­ity, rela­tion­ships and par­ent­hood: He tangata, he tangata, he tangata once again. Finally, I’ve spent all year try­ing to jus­ti­fy leav­ing Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver out of this Top Ten with no luck what­so­ever: the com­plete lack of flaws of any kind mean it gets in des­pite the fact that I didn’t love it like I did some others.

It’s a tough time for loc­al paper film review­ers around the world. Cinema crit­ics from pub­lic­a­tions like the Village Voice have been giv­en the flick by penny-pinching pub­lish­ers and even the Sunday Star-Times in Auckland has star­ted run­ning film reviews from sis­ter papers in Australia rather than pay someone loc­ally to rep­res­ent you. So, I feel incred­ibly for­tu­nate to be able to watch all these films on your behalf and want to thank the Capital Times for indul­ging my desire to cov­er everything rather than a select few releases. Thanks, also, to all the Wellington cinemas who have gra­ciously hos­ted me des­pite my fairly con­stant bitch­ing about stand­ards. But, above all, thank you for read­ing. See you next year.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday January 2, 2008.

Review: Into the Wild, This is England, Once, Bee Movie, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, The White Planet and Hitman

By Cinema and Reviews

In the Summer of 1990 Christopher McCandless donated his life sav­ings to Oxfam and, instead of going to Harvard Law School, headed West in search of him­self, nev­er to talk to his fam­ily again. The jour­ney he took, and what he found and left behind on the way, is the sub­ject of Sean Penn’s crack­ing Into the Wild, based on the book by Jon Krakauer.

Driven by an intel­li­gent young man’s self-righteousness McCandless lived off the land and the gen­er­os­ity of strangers, all the time tak­ing him­self fur­ther away from the people he thought he didn’t need. Emile Hirsch as McCandless has the look (and star qual­ity) of the young Leonardo DiCaprio and the sup­port­ing cast are flaw­less, par­tic­u­larly Catherine Keener and the legendary Hal Holbrook who is just heart­break­ing as lonely wid­ower Ron Franz.

There’s no finer cine­mat­ic sur­vey­or of the cav­ernous and mostly uncharted regions of the male soul than Penn and Into the Wild is his finest achieve­ment to date, lyr­ic­al and beguil­ing. It’s funny how sit­ting in a dark room with strangers can some­times leave you more engaged with the world but this film, the best of the year, did it for me. I came out of the theatre into the cool sum­mer rain and walked home determ­ined to exper­i­ence every drop as if it was the first one.

Margaret Thatcher once said “There’s no such thing as soci­ety.” As a res­ult, under her malevol­ent lead­er­ship English com­munit­ies dis­in­teg­rated as young people without eco­nom­ic or cul­tur­al hope went look­ing for fel­low­ship and found it wherever they could. Set in post-Falklands north­ern England, gif­ted English dir­ect­or Shane Meadows (TwentyFourSeven and A Room for Romeo Brass) is back on top form with This is England, a mem­oir of sorts of his own Nottingham youth.

Picked on and lonely, 11-year-old Shaun is taken under the wing of benign skin­head Woody (Joe Gilgun). When gang lead­er Combo (Stephen Graham) returns from pris­on, his extreme National Front polit­ics splinter the group and Shaun takes the wrong side. Meadows has always been able to get great per­form­ances out of young people and the won­der­ful Thomas Turgoose as Shaun is no exception.

Once is a little gem, like a per­fect short story, sweet and funny and then gone in a heart­beat. Glen Hansard is a broken-hearted Dublin busk­er who meets immig­rant single moth­er Markéta Irglová and bond over a broken vacu­um clean­er. They share a love of music and over an intense week two dam­aged souls help heal each oth­er (and us).

Working our way down the list of the week’s films, in order of qual­ity, we get to Jerry Seinfeld’s Bee Movie. It’s a Dreamworks com­puter anim­ated tale of young Barry (Seinfeld) who, dis­il­lu­sioned with a pro­scribed life­time of end­less work, wants to break out of the hive and see the world. He dis­cov­ers that humans are exploit­ing bees for their honey and decides to right this ter­rible wrong, dis­tort­ing the bal­ance of nature in the pro­cess. It’s a hit and miss affair, at its best when the Seinfeld “voice” is giv­en full reign (which isn’t often enough) but kids watch­ing would prob­ably say the opposite.

Also for young­lings is the live action toy shop fantasy Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium star­ring twinkly Dustin Hoffman as the 200 year old toy impres­ario and shoe wear­er. He wants to leave and hand the shop over to his man­ager, Natalie Portman, but she lacks self-belief and the shop is start­ing to sulk. Derivative and inter­mit­tently inspired, Magorium passes the time eas­ily enough.

I’ll con­fess that I drif­ted off to sleep sev­er­al times dur­ing The White Planet, a doc­u­ment­ary about Arctic wild­life that man­ages to make the Embassy screen feel like a tele­vi­sion set tuned to Animal Planet. I prefer my polar bears clad in armour and tak­ing on bad guys and, frankly, when you’ve seen one nar­whal you’ve seen ’em all.

Candidate for stu­pid­est film of the year, Hitman, is the biggest load of inane rub­bish I’ve wit­nessed in ages. Based on the video game of the same name Hitman, stars Timothy Olyphant (from Die Hard 4.0) as mys­ter­i­ous Agent 47. He’s been dis­avowed by his employ­ers, the secret organ­isa­tion known only as The Organisation (so secret they have their fancy logo plastered all over their laptops) after an assas­sin­a­tion of the Russian Prime Minister goes wrong. Dougray Scott (Perfect Creature) is the Interpol agent who has been track­ing him for three years with no luck, des­pite the fact that 47 has the num­ber 47 tat­tooed as a bar code on the back of his head.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 12 December, 2007.

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: Into the Wild screened in Penthouse Two which still has appalling shut­ter tim­ing prob­lems (I’ve men­tioned this before and Cinema One suf­fers sim­il­arly) and now has a notice­able hot spot in the centre of the screen. Penthouse are re-seating Cinema One but I wish they’d fix these prob­lems first. This is England was in Rialto 2 which has had a reprieve through until March, I under­stand. I will dance on the rubble when it finally goes. Once was in the very nice Penthouse Three. Bee Movie screened at Empire 2, and thanks to all the kids was quite lively. Magorium was a Classic Hits radio pre­view early Sunday morn­ing at Readings. The Embassy screen is not a per­fect curve – in fact it is a series of nar­row planes that looks like a para­bola in most cir­cum­stances. This is very notice­able when the image is mostly one bright col­our like the snow and ice of The White Planet (and the sand of Pirates of the Caribbean). Hitman was also at the Embassy and looked and soun­ded fine.