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Review: I’m Not There., Iron Man, Made of Honor, Dan in Real Life and How About You

By Cinema, Reviews and Wellington

I'm Not There. posterMany years ago English comedi­an Ben Elton cracked a joke about Bob Dylan: “For all you young people in the audi­ence he was the one who could­n’t sing on the end of the We Are The World video.” Nowadays we have to explain to young people what We Are The World was and Dylan has trav­elled even fur­ther away from rel­ev­ance. So why is I’m Not There. (the full stop is part of the title) such essen­tial view­ing if Dylan seems so irrelevant?

Because unlike every oth­er 20th Century icon Dylan nev­er cared what you think – he just fol­lowed his instincts and his interests and the film is an end­lessly fas­cin­at­ing por­trait of that battle to avoid becom­ing what his audi­ence and his industry wanted him to become. Portrayed by six dif­fer­ent act­ors includ­ing Cate Blanchett and Heath Ledger, Dylan’s many per­so­nas still keep you at arms length. I think the key to Dylan is that he is less com­plic­ated (and at the same time more com­plex) than the world would have you believe and he fully deserves a work of art as fine as this one in his name.

I should also point out that I was lucky enough to see I’m not There. in that most music­al of loc­a­tions, the Paramount and it soun­ded superb. A keeper.

Iron Man posterRobert Downey Jr. is one of those movie brats who seems to have been born in front of a cam­era (check out his almost per­fect per­form­ance as Chaplin for Richard Attenborough in 1992). He has­n’t been get­ting the lead roles he deserves (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was the last one) but Iron Man is surely going to change that. Downey Jr.‘s effort­less screen cha­risma is the found­a­tion of a highly enter­tain­ing action movie that is only let down by a not-quite-big-enough set-piece at the end. Billionaire and play­boy arms man­u­fac­turer Tony Stark has his eyes opened to the evils his products enable when he is kid­napped in Afghanistan. After escap­ing, he decides to use his tech­no­logy for good (while still hav­ing as much fun as pos­sible). A good sup­port­ing cast (includ­ing Jeff Bridges look­ing like Daddy Warbucks) keeps things moving.

Made of Honor posterThe fun­ni­est thing about Patrick Dempsey rom-com Made of Honour is that it was made by a com­pany called Original Film. As if! Dempsey plays Tom, super-rich invent­or of the cof­fee col­lar and serial-bedder of beau­ti­ful women. Too late he real­ises that he is actu­ally in love with his best friend Hannah (Michelle Monaghan, this year’s Sandra Bullock) just as she is about to get mar­ried to Trainspotting’s Kevin McKidd in a Scottish castle. Pretty much all the char­ac­ters are deeply shal­low and pretty unlike­able which I’m sure was­n’t the inten­tion and, most annoy­ing of all, dir­ect­or Paul Weiland gives him­self the auteur cred­it of “A Film By”. In your dreams, pal.

Dan in Real LifeMuch more suc­cess­ful, and not coin­cid­ent­ally pop­u­lated with much nicer people, is Dan in Real Life star­ring Steve Carell as author of a pop­u­lar news­pa­per par­ent­ing tips column who has much more dif­fi­culty par­ent­ing his actu­al chil­dren (alone, due to that all-too-common con­ceit of a widow-hood). So far, so un-promising, but Dan in Real Life really wins you over with smart writ­ing and lovely, under­stated per­form­ances from a ter­rif­ic ensemble. Lonely Dan is tak­ing his brood of daugh­ters to a multi-generational fam­ily get togeth­er in rugged Rhode Island. He meets beau­ti­ful and allur­ing Juliette Binoche and they fall in love, just before find­ing out that she is his brother­’s new girl­friend. Testing times around the din­ner table ensue, mostly com­ic but nev­er far away from deeply heart­felt. Frankly, more films should be like this.

How About You stillHow About You is one of those films where, I con­fess, my taste and the taste of main­stream New Zealanders diverges some­what. Ellie, played by Hayley Atwell (star of the unne­ces­sar­ily forth­com­ing new ver­sion of Brideshead Revisited), is forced by cir­cum­stance to help her sis­ter care for a group of unruly cli­ents (a dream cast includ­ing Vanessa Redgrave, Brenda Fricker and Joss Ackland) in an Irish eld­erly res­id­en­tial home so beau­ti­ful it makes Malvina Major look like Alcatraz. Left alone with them at Christmas, she man­ages to trans­form all of them into saintly par­agons of matur­ity via alco­hol and non-prescribed drugs. I barely tol­er­ated this but if you are over 70 you might get a kick out of it – the people behind me who talked all the way through cer­tainly did.

Human Rights Film Festival posterThe Human Rights Film Festival kicks off it’s 2008 sea­son at the Paramount on Thursday even­ing. While most of these films don’t really qual­i­fy as cinema per se, this is still an import­ant oppor­tun­ity to see the world as it is abso­lutely not por­trayed through the com­mer­cial media. Highlights for me include Occupation 101, a crystal-clear exam­in­a­tion of the real­ity of life in occu­pied Palestine, and Now The People Have Awoken, anoth­er per­spect­ive on Chavez’s Venezuela which will be of par­tic­u­lar interest if you have seen Pilger’s War on Democracy. There are sev­en short­er items on the pro­gramme too: I’m look­ing for­ward to see­ing Bowling for Zimbabwe about a young boy who needs a crick­et­ing schol­ar­ship in order to escape the man-made atro­city of Mugabe’s grind­ing poverty.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 7 May, 2008.

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: I already men­tioned how good I’m Not There. soun­ded at the Paramount dur­ing the Showcase. I don’t know wheth­er it is the shape of the room or the PA speak­ers behind the screen but music cinema has always soun­ded sen­sa­tion­al in there. Iron Man was, like Transformers last year, at a busy pub­lic screen­ing at the Embassy which looked and soun­ded great. Standing ova­tion from a few fan­boys, too. Made of Honour looked per­fectly accept­able at the Empire. I am not allowed to tell you where I saw Dan in Real Life as they made me sign an NDA before they would let me in there. No shit! But it was amaz­ing. The print had seen bet­ter days but had been giv­en a spruce up by our hosts. How About You was ruined by it being a not very good film but the incess­ant talk­ing by the old bid­dies behind me and the annoy­ing hair in the gate fin­ished me off. Penthouse.

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

When 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.

And, 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.

I’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! 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!

Like 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 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.

Finally, 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: Superbad, I Do, Perfume- The Story of a Murderer, Evan Almighty and The Future is Unwritten

By Cinema and Reviews

When your cor­res­pond­ent was a nip­per back in the early 80s, two of the most prized pir­ate videos avail­able were the legendary Porky’s and some­thing called Lemon Popsicle – two films about horny teen­agers in the 1950s – and illi­cit cop­ies were pre­cious cur­rency. Now the mod­ern gen­er­a­tion gets its own fat Jewish kids try­ing to get laid in Superbad: a very funny, filthy, com­edy spawned fully-formed from the dirty minds of two horny 14 year olds (writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg pro­duced their first draft when they were, in fact, only 14).

High school kids Seth and Evan are des­per­ate to get lucky so they’ll be able to go to col­lege with “exper­i­ence” and the only way they know to achieve that is to get chicks drunk. With the help of an extremely humor­ous fake Hawaiian ID and two hil­ari­ously easy-going loc­al cops they get pretty close. As you might expect, the per­fect audi­ence for this film is about 14 years old, and con­sid­er­ing the R16 rat­ing it would only be fit­ting if they watched it on grainy VHS or wagged school to sneak into the flicks.

I Do is that rare beast: a romantic com­edy that works bet­ter as a romance than a com­edy, largely due to dir­ec­tion from Eric Lartigau that makes a hor­rible meal of the broad com­edy moments and self-effacing per­form­ances from leads Charlotte Gainsbourg and Alain Chabat. Chabat plays hen-pecked met­ro­sexu­al per­fume design­er Luis Costa, saddled with five sis­ters, sev­en nieces and a wid­owed moth­er, all of whom are des­per­ate to see him mar­ried off. As seems to be the way of things in French cinema recently Costa hires a stranger to pre­tend to be his fiancée so she can dump him at the alter and the fam­ily will get off his back. A match­less plan I’m sure you’ll agree.

Surely it can­’t be a coin­cid­ence that this film is released in the same week as Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, anoth­er film about an emo­tion­ally stun­ted wonder-nose. Perfume is based on the well-loved Patrick Süsskind nov­el that many (includ­ing Stanley Kubrick) con­sidered un-filmable and so it proves. Ben Wishaw plays Jean-Baptiste Grenouille: born into poverty in pre-revolutionary Paris he has a remark­able tal­ent for dis­cern­ing scent. Unfortunately, as a char­ac­ter he’s not much more than a monkey-boy with a nose and dir­ect­or Tom Tykwer fails to find a sat­is­fact­ory cine­mat­ic rep­res­ent­a­tion for the sense of smell which defeats the point somewhat.

I won’t go as far as recom­mend­ing avoid­ance as, unlike most films, it is full of mem­or­able moments and will at least pro­voke a response – its just that mine was negative.

The like­able comedi­an Steve Carell takes the lead in Evan Almighty, sequel to un-likeable comedi­an Jim Carrey’s smash-hit Bruce Almighty from 2003. Carell plays politi­cian Evan Baxter who is taught a les­son in humil­ity and eth­ics by gen­i­al prac­tic­al joker God (Morgan Freeman). Soft-headed, dim-witted but warm-hearted.

Punk came along at just the right time for Joe Strummer. As “Woody” Mellor (after folkie Woody Guthrie) he was a middle-class art school drop-out chan­nel­ling his energy into women and pub rock until he heard the siren call of punk and made his mark as lead­er of The Clash. Julien Temple’s mov­ing bio­graphy, The Future is Unwritten, is an excel­lent guide to the punk peri­od but is even bet­ter on the per­son­al and artist­ic resur­rec­tion of Strummer’s final years. Highly recommended.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 19 September, 2007.