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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: Rocky Balboa and more ...

By Cinema and Reviews

This week Wellington gets a chance to farewell one of the titans of world cinema, an inspiration to many, derided by a few; an icon who walked his own idiosyncratic path. I am, of course, talking about Rocky Balboa, kind-hearted dim-bulb and possessor of one of the great loves in cinema: his adoration of Adrian (Talia Shire) remains undiminished even though her cancer left him a widower a few years between Rocky V and this new one.

Rocky Balboa posterThe Rocky of I and II was always a great character, led astray during the blockbuster years, and Rocky Balboa gives him back to us. It’s well written and self-aware and, as a bonus, there’s hardly any boxing in it.

A Prairie Home CompanionRobert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion is too nice a film to divide people the way that it does. Having said that, if you are one of those people who switches off National Radio whenever genial raconteur Garrison Keiller Keillor introduces his legendary live radio show then you will find the film version an awful trial. Thrown together in typically-Altman, ramshackle, style and shot, it appears, with no more than half an eye on the finished product, APHC is a delightful, wistful, appreciation of community, nostalgia and the passing of time, the finality of things if you will. It’s only fitting that Altman’s final film, shot while he was riddled with the cancer that would kill him, should be about letting go. I loved it, but then I was probably always going to.

HollywoodlandIn Hollywoodland Ben Affleck is perfect as wooden actor George Reeves who found fame as television’s first, portly, Superman in the 1950s but who ended up dead of apparently self-inflicted gunshot wounds after a failed attempt at a comeback. The film brings life to the persistent rumours that Reeves’ death was the result of foul play — courtesy of a jealous husband with friends in Hollywood high places.

Adrien Brody plays a fictional gumshoe on the trail of the mystery and the film tries hard to ride the coat-tails of classics like Chinatown but is too darn slow to keep up, even though it looks the part.

Stranger than Fiction posterWill Ferrell plays a slightly less demented version of his usual emotionally-retarded man-child in Stranger Than Fiction, a slender but likeable fantasy about a man who discovers he is a character in a novel being written by Emma Thompson. It’s her voice in his head, narrating his life, and no one else can hear it. This is annoying and inexplicable at first, but gets serious when he discovers she wants to kill him off. Chicago looks great (and so does Maggie Gyllenhaal).

Squeegee Bandit posterRaucous kiwi documentary Squeegee Bandit follows Auckland street-corner window washer “Starfish” around for a few months, getting to know him, his transitory life and his turf. There’s some interesting meat buried inside this film but the MTV editing, bothersome soundtrack and general noise levels make it harder than it should be to get at. It’s an interesting documentary but difficult to recommend as entertainment.

The Last King of Scotland posterThe Last King of Scotland is a fictionalised portrait of Idi Amin, dictator of Uganda from 1971 to 1979 and self-appointed “Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular”. To fully appreciate Forest Whitaker’s superb performance check out the real Idi’s eyes in the archive footage at the end of the film and you can see the genuine bat-shit insane paranoia of the man.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 14 February, 2007.

Preview: 2007

By Cinema

This week’s Capital Times column. No reviews due to the Christmas break, instead a preview of a few titles to expect in 2007.

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