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Review: Paul

By Cinema and Reviews

Paul posterOnly one film for review this week: Paul is the third fea­ture to be writ­ten by and star Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, respons­ible for two of my favour­ite films of the last dec­ade, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. This time around they’re not joined by dir­ect­or Edgar Wright (busy with his own Scott Pilgrim pic­ture from last year) and the flick is dir­ec­ted by Greg Mottola (Superbad).

Pegg and Frost play Graeme Willy and Clive Gollings, two very English sci-fi and com­ic book fans on a dream hol­i­day: Comic-Con in San Diego then rent an RV and drive to the most fam­ous UFO sites in the States (Area 51, Roswell New Mexico, etc.) While nerd­ing it hap­pily around the place they wit­ness a car crash and dis­cov­er the only sur­viv­or is a three foot tall ali­en (big head, big eyes) named Paul. He’s a wise-cracking smart-ass with the entirely appro­pri­ate voice of Seth Rogen and he’s been enjoy­ing the hos­pit­al­ity of the US gov­ern­ment for fifty years until they finally decide to cut him up to see how his brain works. So he escapes.

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Review: Slumdog Millionaire, Role Models and The Map Reader

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

I don’t have much room this week and I want to spend most of it gush­ing over Slumdog Millionaire so let’s get started.

Role Models posterBack in 2003, when the Incredibly Strange Film Festival was still its own bump­tious stand-alone anarch­ic self, we opened the Festival with the sum­mer camp spoof Wet Hot American Summer and good­ness me, wasn’t that a time? Written and dir­ec­ted by David Wain, WHAS was a pitch-perfect trib­ute to teen com­ed­ies of the 80s and his new film Role Models attempts to ride the cur­rent wave of sexu­ally frank grown-up com­ed­ies but he doesn’t seem to really have the heart for it. The gross-out bits are uncom­fort­ably gross, the boobies seem like after­thoughts and the film really doesn’t hit its straps until it starts cheer­ing for the under­dog late in the day.

Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott play sales­man ped­dling energy drink to high school kids. After an unfor­tu­nate (sta­tion­ary) road rage incid­ent their jail time is con­ver­ted to com­munity ser­vice at Sturdy Wings – a ‘big broth­er’ out­fit match­ing mis­fit kids up with respons­ible male adults. This kind of mater­i­al has proved out­stand­ingly pop­u­lar recently when pro­duced by Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and I can’t help think­ing that if he had got­ten his hands on Role Models it would have about 20% more jokes in 16% short­er run­ning time – he really is that much of a machine.

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Review: Frozen River, Pineapple Express and The Nightmare Before Christmas 3D

By Cinema and Reviews

It’s the weird­est coin­cid­ence. In two out of the three films I saw this week someone was shot in the ear. Seriously, go fig­ure. Since I star­ted this gig I’ve seen more than 400 films and no one has ever been shot in the ear and then, just like that, two come along at once.

Frozen River posterThat’s the only thing that con­nects two very dif­fer­ent but very good films: Courtney Hunt’s debut thrill­er Frozen River and David Gordon Green’s very funny Pineapple Express. Frozen River is being sold as a thrill­er, and it does have some very tense edge-of-your-seat moments, but it’s actu­ally a gritty drama about America’s rur­al poor with plenty of under­stand­ing and for­give­ness run­ning through its heart.

We open on a hard-faced woman’s tears. Melissa Leo plays Ray, whose hus­band Troy has giv­en in to his gambling addic­tion and scarpered with the balloon-payment on their new trail­er and it’s two days before Christmas. She’s bring­ing up her two chil­dren in a tiny trail­er down a muddy drive­way in a small town on the snowy bor­der between New York state and Quebec, work­ing part time in the Yankee Dollar store and try­ing to make ends meet.

Searching for the dead­beat hus­band at the loc­al, Mohawk-run, bingo hall she meets Lila Littlewolf who is driv­ing Troy’s aban­doned car. Lila (Misty Upham) is a depressed young woman, liv­ing in her own lonely trail­er, who intends to use the car to bring a few illeg­al immig­rants in to the coun­try, cross­ing the frozen river at the Indian reser­va­tion where the State Troopers can’t go. Needing money (and hav­ing rights to the car), Ray agrees to help, gambling everything she has on mak­ing a couple of trips so she can get her fam­ily through Christmas.

Gambling is the thread run­ning through the film – the First Nation Mohawk people fund their pro­grammes and main­tain their inde­pend­ence through gambling and the work­ing poor like Ray gamble every day that the few choices they have won’t see them fall­ing through the cracks in the ice – meta­phor­ic­ally or in reality.

A bril­liant debut, though not tightly-plotted enough to really qual­i­fy as a thrill­er, Frozen River is up there with 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days as an earn­est rep­res­ent­a­tion of people who would oth­er­wise be invis­ible to us.

Pineapple Express posterThe Apatow machine con­tin­ues to spew out fine com­edy. This year we have already had Drillbit Taylor, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Step Brothers and the latest is Pineapple Express, and if it’s not the Citizen Kane of stoner movies then it’s the Goodfellas. Written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (last year’s Superbad), this film is greatly enhanced by the pres­ence of a real film­maker behind the cam­era, George Washington’s David Gordon Green.

Rogen also stars as pot-head pro­cess serv­er Dale Denton, who wit­nesses a murder and, in his pan­ic, hides out with his deal­er Saul (James Franco). Unfortunately for both of them, this brings the wrath of the pot-mob down on both of them and they are chased across sub­urb­an Glendale by a mot­ley crew of ruf­fi­ans and hood­lums, all the while mak­ing good use of the herb that gives the film its title.

Rogen and Franco both came to pro­du­cer Judd Apatow’s atten­tion dur­ing the short-lived but well-loved tv show “Freaks & Geeks” (which also starred Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s Jason Segal) and their easy rap­port is a strength that gets the film through some of its shaki­er moments.

The Nightmare Before Christmas 3D poster Stocktaking the new digit­al 3D realm, we have now had an anim­ated ori­gin­al (Beowulf), a couple of con­cert movies (includ­ing the bril­liant U2), a live-action dud (Journey to the Center of the Earth) and now we see the res­ults when Hollywood goes back to the vault and re-masters an older film for the new tech­no­logy. The Nightmare Before Christmas from 1993 is an excel­lent intro­duc­tion to the pro­cess (if you haven’t been temp­ted before). It was always a vivid and ori­gin­al pro­duc­tion (watched over by Tim Burton) and the 3D really makes it pop.

Jack Skellington is the king of Halloween but is jaded and bored. Discovering Christmas-town, he decides that he wants Christmas all to him­self and hi-jacks it (kid­nap­ping Santa Claus in the pro­cess). Animated (using sim­il­ar stop-motion tech­niques to the Aardman films) by Henry Selick, Nightmare is won­der­ful to look at and not too long for kids, although if you have little tol­er­ance for music­al thee-ater no amount of glor­i­ous 3D will coun­ter­act Danny Elfman’s soundtrack. Me, I loved it.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 29 October, 2008.

Due to exams I skipped a week writ­ing for the CT so there was no sched­uled entry for 5 November. You haven’t missed any­thing. Now, I have to start catch­ing up on movies before I’m swamped by the Christmas rush. This year has gone by so fast.

Review: Gone Baby Gone, Shutter and Drillbit Taylor

By Cinema and Reviews

Gone Baby Gone posterIn 1997 two young hot­shots stunned the film world by win­ning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for their first pro­duced script. Since then, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have suffered cruel mut­ter­ings ever since: that they could­n’t pos­sibly have writ­ten such a good film by them­selves and that if they did why haven’t they writ­ten any­thing else? Added to the indig­nity is the con­stant rumour that Hollywood script guru William Goldman net­ted a mil­lion dol­lars for three weeks work punch­ing up Good Will Hunting on con­di­tion that he would forever deny it (which he denies).

In the 11 years since that win the career tra­ject­or­ies of Affleck and Damon have been pub­lic. Starring roles in block­buster suc­cesses, high-profile romantic liais­ons and (in the case of Affleck) a little bit of rehab. But there has been pre­cious little ori­gin­al cre­at­ive out­put from either party until the release of Gone Baby Gone, Affleck’s dir­ect­ori­al debut (also co-written), which reached Wellington this week.

Directing is a real test of a film­maker­’s chops. Unlike a fudged writ­ing cred­it you can­’t fake being on a set (although a great crew, DP and edit­or can often cov­er a mul­ti­tude of sins) but I’m thrilled to report that Affleck has pro­duced a work of genu­ine last­ing quality.

Based on a nov­el by Dennis Lehane, Gone Baby Gone is set in the same Boston mean streets that Will (from Good Will Hunting) grew up in. If you saw Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River (also from a Lehane story) or Scorsese’s The Departed you’ll be famil­i­ar with the geo­graph­ic­al ter­rit­ory, but Affleck’s eye is even more highly tuned to the neigh­bor­hood than those masters.

Four year old Amanda has been snatched from her home while her young single moth­er (sen­sa­tion­al Amy Ryan) was get­ting stoned at a bar. The Police led by Morgan Freeman (him­self suf­fer­ing the loss of a child) are strug­gling to get trac­tion from a com­munity sus­pi­cious of uni­forms. Young private invest­ig­at­or Patrick (Casey Affleck) and his part­ner Angie (Michelle Monaghan) are enlis­ted by the fam­ily to try and tease out some clues that would be unavail­able to law enforcement.

And that’s when it gets really inter­est­ing – because Affleck chooses to down­play the thrill­er (or pro­ced­ur­al) aspects of the piece in favour of char­ac­ter study and the unveil­ing of a ter­rible mor­al dilemma. And its a dilemma that remains per­fectly bal­anced right to the end where, like Bogart’s Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, our hon­our­able private eye is vir­tu­ally alone, forced to live with the unend­ing pain of doing the right thing.

Shutter posterThe pro­duc­tion line of asian-horror-remakes is still chug­ging along. The Eye (remake of a Hong Kong thrill­er) will be reviewed next week while Shutter (based on a Thai film called Shutter) has already been around a week or so. I find these things to be dread­fully tire­some for the most part, for­mu­laic and pre­dict­able. In Shutter a new­ly­wed American couple in Japan (Joshua Jackson and Rachael Taylor) find strange shad­ows appear­ing in their hol­i­day snaps. It turns out there’s a spir­it fol­low­ing them around, sneak­ing into their frames, spoil­ing their com­pos­i­tions. Well, their pho­to­graphy is about to be the least of their wor­ries. Shutter is laugh­able for the first two-thirds but res­cued by a well-manufactured dénoue­ment so I ended up not hat­ing it totally.

Drillbit Taylor posterOwen Wilson has been in the news more for his men­tal health issues than his act­ing in recent months but it is worth­while to be reminded that he remains one of the most watch-able act­ors of mod­ern times and the pleas­ant enough com­edy Drillbit Taylor comes to life whenev­er he is on the screen. He plays the eponym­ous Taylor, a mil­it­ary desert­er and bum who takes on the job of pro­tect­ing three nerdy kids from high school bul­lies. The kids are pretty funny too – like the kids from Superbad, only a few years younger.

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

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: This is the first all-Readings edi­tion of the weekly review since it com­menced back in October 2006.

Review: Charlie Wilson’s War, Juno, Cloverfield, Meet the Spartans and The Jane Austen Book Club

By Cinema and Reviews

Charlie Wilson's War poster

The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Day in 1979. They remained in the coun­try, bru­tally sup­press­ing the loc­al res­ist­ance, until they were forced to leave in 1989: almost ten years of occu­pa­tion that des­troyed one coun­try and ruined anoth­er. One side of the story was told in the recent film The Kite Runner: in it we saw a vibrant and cos­mo­pol­it­an cul­ture bombed back to the stone age by the Soviets and their equally one-eyed Taliban replacements.

For peacen­iks like myself, the Soviet aggres­sion was an incon­veni­ent fact, dif­fi­cult to acknow­ledge dur­ing our efforts to pre­vent nuc­le­ar anni­hil­a­tion at the hands of war-mongerers like Ronald Reagan. While we were march­ing for peace and dis­arm­a­ment, play­boy Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) was secretly fund­ing the Mujahideen insur­gents to the tune of hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars, provid­ing them with the weapons that would bring down the Russians.

With the help of a reneg­ade CIA-man (won­der­ful Philip Seymour Hoffman), a Texan social­ite (Julia Roberts), an Israeli spy (Ken Stott) and President Zia, dic­tat­or of Pakistan (Om Puri), Wilson per­suaded, cajoled, threatened and coerced Congress to pay for all this – without them even know­ing what it was for. Aaron Sorkin’s script is razor-sharp, often very funny, and does a great job of not spelling out all the les­sons we should be learn­ing. Charlie Wilson’s War may have brought about the end of the Cold War but it also opened up Afghanistan to the bru­tal fun­da­ment­al­ism of the Taliban, increased the influ­ence of the Saudis in the region and indir­ectly led to the Iraqi poo-fight we are in now. As Wilson says, it’s all about the endgame.

Juno poster

How strange it is that two of my favour­ite films of the past twelve months should be about coming-to-terms with an unwanted preg­nancy. Knocked Up, last year, was a broad com­edy with a good heart and this year Jason Reitman’s Juno is even bet­ter: full of unex­pec­ted sub­tlety and nuance from a great cast work­ing with a tre­mend­ous script from gif­ted new­comer Diablo Cody.

Like last year’s Hard Candy, Ellen Page plays a pre­co­cious teen­ager only this time she is not a hom­icid­al revenge mani­ac. At only 16, she finds her­self preg­nant to the unlikely Paulie Bleeker (Superbads Michael Cera) and takes it upon her­self to find appro­pri­ate par­ents for the little sea mon­key grow­ing inside her. The rich couple who sign on (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) look per­fect, but looks can be deceiv­ing. Juno is an easy film to love and I can see people going back to it again and again.

Cloverfield poster

If a film has a good heart you can for­give its flaws, but what to do when it has no heart at all? Cloverfield is a modern-day retell­ing of a clas­sic Hollywood mon­ster movie and once again New York gets a ter­rible pound­ing. A group of self-absorbed yup­pies are caught in the carnage and try to escape but man­age to film the entire thing on their cam­cord­er. Yeah right. Technically admir­able, Cloverfield clev­erly main­tains the home video con­ceit but shaky-cam motion sick­ness got to me in the end.

Meet the Spartans poster

Meet the Spartans is all flaw and no redeem­ing fea­ture: anoth­er miss and miss spoof of last year’s hits. Soft tar­gets include “Ugly Betty”, “American Idol”, Paris Hilton (yawn) and 300. The Spartans were gay, appar­ently. And not in a good way.

The Jane Austen Book Club poster

The Jane Austen Book Club is a well-intentioned adapt­a­tion of the pop­u­lar nov­el about a group of women (and one dude) who meet once a month to talk about their favour­ite author. Writer and dir­ect­or Robin Swicord has assembled a fine ensemble cast includ­ing Maria Bello, Kathy Baker, Amy Brenneman and Jimmy Smits but too often they are rep­res­ent­at­ives of people rather than people them­selves and the film is un-persusasive. Actually, that’s not entirely true: the tent­at­ive rela­tion­ship between Bello’s inde­pend­ent hound breed­er and Hugh Dancy’s shy IT guru works nicely (for the most part).

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 30 January, 2008.

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: Charlie Wilson’s War screened at a Reading Cinemas print check, 9am last Tuesday morn­ing (thanks, Hadyn), sit­ting in the com­fy Gold Lounge chairs; Juno screened on Sunday after­noon in Penthouse 1 (the ori­gin­al). It’s nice to see the Penthouse finally repla­cing the seats in Cinema 1 but per­haps they could think about repla­cing the sound sys­tem with some­thing that wasn’t salvaged from a tran­sist­or radio. Meet the Spartans was seen at a busy Saturday mat­inée at Readings where the brain-dead teen­agers around me hooted at every stu­pid, lame, joke. Cloverfield was in Readings digit­al cinema (Cinema 5) and looked sen­sa­tion­al. Digital really is the future and it can­’t come soon enough. I shud­der to think how ill I might have felt if I’d seen Cloverfield from a wobbly, scratchy print. The Jane Austen Book Club was the second part of a Penthouse double-feature on Sunday, this time in Cinema 3 (the new one) which is splendid.

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

By Cinema and Reviews

Superbad posterWhen 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 posterI 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.

Perfume posterSurely 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.

Evan Almighty posterThe 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.

Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten posterPunk 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.