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Review: The Chef, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Step Up 4: Miami Heat

By Cinema and Reviews

The Chef posterCinema and fine food have been getting along rather well in recent times. This year El Bulli showcased the amazing molecular creations of Spanish genius Ferran Adrià and the painstaking seafood creations in Jiro Dreams of Sushi are still on select screens here in Wellington. Films like those honour the creativity, training, hard work and experience of some remarkable people. Meanwhile, Daniel Cohen’s The Chef takes a different path and mercilessly — and humourlessly — satirises their pretensions.

The great Jean Reno (The Big Blue, The Professional) is Alexandre Lagarde, still head chef and creative force behind the Paris restaurant that bears his name but long since sold out to corporate interests that pimp him out for tv cooking shows and frozen supermarket ready-meals. Jacky Bonnot (Michaël Youn) is Lagarde’s biggest fan — a talented young chef whose talents are unrecognised by the bistros and roadside cafés that regularly fire him.

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Review: Soul Kitchen, Step Up 3, Killers and a couple more ...

By Cinema and Reviews

Soul Kitchen posterTurkish-German director Fatih Akin has long been an arthouse favourite around these parts. Head-On (2004) and The Edge of Heaven (2007) were Festival successes so it was odd to see his new film Soul Kitchen skip this year’s event and go straight to general release. On viewing it’s easy to see why. Akin has gone commercial and Soul Kitchen is as broad a comedy as you’ll find outside the big chains — sadly I have to report that Akin’s film doesn’t sit comfortably in that territory.

Zinos (Adam Bousdoukos) runs a greasy spoon café called the Soul Kitchen in a rundown part of old Hamburg. He’s not much of a cook or a businessman but his loyal customers seem to like it. Thrown into a tizzy by a combination of his girlfriend’s move to China, a very bad back, the tax department, his deadbeat brother (Moritz Bleibtreu) on day release from prison and an old school friend with an eye on his real estate, Zinos tries to navigate his way through a rapidly deteriorating situation with only a genius new chef and some loyal but easily distracted staff.

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Review: Semi-Pro, The Spiderwick Chronicles, Horton Hears a Who!, The War on Democracy, Across the Universe, How She Move and Rambo

By Cinema and Reviews

200804161055.jpgWhen the current Writer-in-Residence at Victoria University’s Institute of Modern Letters suggested I take another look at my negative review of Blades of Glory, I made a promise that (while I couldn’t bring myself to watch that turkey again) I would approach the next Will Ferrell with a consciously open mind. Sadly, with Semi-Pro (a cross between Anchorman and Talladega Nights featuring the strengths of neither and the rampant self-indulgence of both), I heard no laughter, only the sound of the bottom of the barrel being scraped. Recently New Line Cinema ended it’s life as an independent producer and I’d like to think Semi-Pro was responsible. It’s no less than it deserves.

The Spiderwick Chronicles posterAnd, at risk of sounding like a total film-wanker I’m going to allocate what strengths The Spiderwick Chronicles has to the presence of the great John Sayles as co-writer. Sayles’ independent work includes classics like The Brother From Another Planet and Passion Fish but makes a living doing (mostly uncredited) punch-up jobs on big budget screenplays. I was growing increasingly frustrated with the plodding story-telling, and the over-reliance on the well-designed digi-creatures, before a great moment at the climax restored my faith that a proper screenwriter was on board after all.

Three children have to leave New York when their parents split up and live in the big, old, abandoned house in the country that their crazy Aunt lived in. Freddie Highmore, so ubiquitous in these sorts of films that he even does double-duty in this one, plays bad-boy Jared who discovers an old book in the attic, reads the note warning him not to open it, ignores it, and unleashes a world of goblins, fairies and ogres that are invisible to normal people. Nothing new to report there, then, but every generation seems to need a new version just for them.

The War on Democracy posterI’ve been a John Pilger-sceptic for a while, not helped by his bombastic and unpleasant behaviour to local interviewers, but his first independent documentary for cinema, The War on Democracy, eventually won me over. It makes an excellent companion to Helen Smyth’s Cuba-doc ¿La Verdad? as it provides the kind of encyclopaedic background to the United States’ nefarious engagement with Latin America that she could only hint at. Starting in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, Pilger uses the failed coup in 2002 as a springboard to show how, for more than 50 years, the US has installed or deposed governments across the continent in order to further its own political and financial aims. It’s not great cinema – that’s not Pilger’s bag – but it is essential viewing.

Horton Hears a Who! posterHorton Hears a Who! may well feature the most profound moment in cinema this year. As the tiny citizens of Who-ville (a bustling and happy community living on a tiny speck, itself sitting on a dandelion being blown around by fate) realise that in order to be saved they first must be heard, they bang drums, blow trumpets and chant “We are here!” Like the forgotten poor in Pilger’s Caracas barrio or the displaced in Darfur, the power to proclaim our existence in the face of ignorant or malevolent authority isn’t just a right, it’s an obligation, and I’m certain that the good Dr. Seuss wouldn’t have missed the connection.

Big-hearted elephant Horton (Jim Carrey) rescues the speck when his enormous ears pick up the tiny voice of the Who-ville Mayor (Steve Carell) and he realises that he has a mission. In the face of community standards ruthlessly enforced by Carol Burnett’s Kangaroo, Horton is hounded out of the jungle but he never gives up. So, not only does Horton not suck like all recent Seuss adaptations, it bristles with energy, humour and panache. Choice!

Across the Universe posterLike the forthcoming Dylan portrait I’m Not There, Across the Universe feels like the Baby Boomers’ last attempt to claim the 60s as, you know, important, meaningful, unique. The music of The Beatles tells the story of star-crossed lovers Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) and Jude (Jim Sturgess) as they try and keep a relationship alive across that tumultuous decade. I emotionally disengaged the moment I realised that Sturgess sounded like Robbie Williams instead of John Lennon but was never less than entertained. A trip, man.

How She Move posterHow She Move is a Canadian version of films like Step Up 2 The Streets, Stomp The Yard and countless others. Featuring all the usual elements of the genre: underground urban dance crews; a kid has to get out of the ghetto via a scholarship; she needs the prize money; parents just don’t understand, etc. It’s as if the producers couldn’t decide which banal clichés to leave out and gave up, stuffing the finished film to breaking point. I’ve grown to really dislike the dancing in these films, too.

Rambo posterFinally, a late word on behalf of Rambo (which missed the cut during the last few weeks). By making his villains Burmese human-rights violators and his victims innocent aid workers, director Sylvester Stallone stacks the deck effectively and, despite looking completely bizarre, he infuses his taciturn killing-machine with the occasional moist-eyed moment of humanity amid the flying limbs. A respectable end to what had become a cartoon franchise.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 16 April, 2008.

Notes on screening conditions: Semi-Pro was at a sparsely attended public matinée at Readings. The Spiderwick Chronicles was at the Empire in Island Bay and the review was in no way influenced by the lovely free coffee they made me just as the trailers were playing. The War on Democracy was a DVD screener provided by Hopscotch (via GT) and the film is currently only playing at the Lighthouse in Petone. Horton Hears a Who! was also screened at the Empire where I was the only unattended adult present. Across the Universe was screened at the Paramount’s World Cinema Showcase. How She Move was an exceedingly sparsely attended matinée at Readings and Rambo was another Readings week day matinée, a couple of weeks ago.

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.