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the italian

Review: The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, I Love You, Beth Cooper and four more ...

By Cinema and Reviews

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 posterOne of the Film Society high­lights in recent years was the spe­cial screen­ing (on lus­trous 35mm) of the 70s clas­sic thrill­er The Taking of Pelham One Two Three about the hijack­ing of a New York sub­way train. It was a won­der­ful exper­i­ence for many dif­fer­ent reas­ons – a cyn­ic­al love let­ter to a decrep­it, bank­rupt and graffiti-covered city; an ordin­ary guy hero that audi­ences these days would nev­er be allowed to accept (played by grizzled old Walter Matthau) and Robert Shaw (from Jaws and The Sting) chew­ing the scenery as the vil­lain hold­ing a city to ransom.

Thus my heart sank when the remake was announced, par­tic­u­larly the choice of styl­ist (over sub­stance) Tony Scott as dir­ect­or. His recent films like Domino and Déjà Vu have been full of music video fan­ci­ness, giv­ing his act­ors no room to breathe – he’s the Scott you get when you can’t have his broth­er Ridley.

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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: The Italian, My Best Friend, No Reservations, Breach, The War Within and Black Snake Moan

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

The Italian posterReturning swiftly from the Festival is The Italian, a lovely and old-fashioned art-house win­ner about a six year-old Russian orphan played by the won­der­ful Kolya Spiridonov. He’s Vanya, a little urchin with soul­ful eyes who sees everything that goes on in his wretched Dickensian orphan­age includ­ing the cor­rup­tion, thiev­ery and abuse. The moth­er of his best friend makes a pathet­ic drunk­en appear­ance which gives him the idea that he, too, might have a moth­er. And, if he has a moth­er then there’s no reas­on why he can­’t find her so they can live togeth­er forever. Highly recommended.

My Best Friend posterMy Best Friend is one of those French films that sig­nals its gal­lic cre­den­tials with plenty of accor­di­on music (though falls short of gra­tu­it­ous Eiffel Tower shots like Orchestra Seats earli­er in the year). Ubiquitous Daniel Auteuill plays an antique deal­er who dis­cov­ers he has no friends but needs one to win a bet. He dis­cov­ers trivia buff taxi driver Dany Boon who seems to win friends effort­lessly and demands to know his secret.

And, like so many French films, the effete bour­geois gets life les­sons from the down-to-earth pro­let­ari­an (cf Conversations With My Gardener, still to return from the Festival) because the life of an intel­lec­tu­al is no life at all. If this was an American remake star­ring John Travolta and, say, Chris Rock we’d call it the rub­bish it is.

No Reservations posterTalking of rub­bish American remakes, No Reservations is a vir­tu­ally shot-for-shot recre­ation of the German hit Mostly Martha about an uptight female chef dis­armed by her 9 year-old niece and the vivid Italian chef she is forced to work beside. This is a vehicle for Catherine Zeta-Jones with sup­port from Little Miss Sunshine’s Abigail Breslin and talk­ing chin Aaron Eckhart and I’m sure most will find it unex­cep­tion­al; I des­pised its lazy com­pet­ence includ­ing the cyn­ic­al abil­ity to com­mis­sion a rare Philip Glass score and then dis­card it whenev­er the need for a cheap pop cue appears.

Breach posterBreach is a ter­ribly good, low-key, post-Cold War thrill­er anchored by a Champions League per­form­ance from Chris Cooper as real-life FBI trait­or Robert Hanssen who was caught and con­victed in February 2001 after 22 years selling secrets to the Russians. Helping nail him is rook­ie Ryan Phillippe who, at first, is seduced by his pious Catholicism and computer-nerdery before dis­cov­er­ing the com­plex and unusu­al man inside. Of course, while the FBI was put­ting every spare man-hour on the case of the mole with­in, sev­er­al Saudi stu­dents were learn­ing to fly planes in Florida so it was­n’t exactly the Bureau’s finest hour.

The War Within posterIn The War Within, Grand Central Station in New York is the tar­get of fic­tion­al Al-Qaeda ter­ror­ist Hassan who, like Derek Luke’s char­ac­ter in Catch a Fire a few weeks ago, is an inno­cent man rad­ic­al­ised by the bru­tal­ity around him. Very well made and pho­to­graphed (HD’s digit­al abil­ity to pro­duce vivid, sat­ur­ated col­ours well to the fore) on a mod­est budget. The War Within is almost cal­cu­lated to be of lim­ited interest to main­stream audi­ences but will cer­tainly reward those who seek it out.

Black Snake Moan posterIn Black Snake Moan, psychologically-damaged abuse-victim Christina Ricci goes off the deep end when boy­friend Justin Timberlake leaves their small Tennessee town to join the National Guard. Grizzled Blues vet­er­an Samuel L. Jackson chains her to a radi­at­or to save her from her­self but he has issues of his own, of course. Black Snake Moan gets bet­ter the more it trusts its char­ac­ters and, if you can get past the pulp shock value, there’s a good film inside.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times, Wednesday 23 August, 2007.

Some screen­ing notes: The Italian screened at home sev­er­al weeks ago on a time-coded DVD from the Film Festival; My Best Friend viewed from the too close front row of a packed Penthouse Three (the big new one) on 11 August; No Reservations seen at a vir­tu­ally empty staff and media screen­ing in Readings 8 at 9.15 on a Monday morn­ing (6 August); Breach watched this Monday (20 August) at the Empire in Island Bay who shouted me a free cof­fee after I bitched about the bus driver mak­ing me throw my first one away; The War Within screened at home on Saturday night from a gently water­marked DVD from Arkles, the dis­trib­ut­or; Black Snake Moan screened at the Paramount on Monday afternoon.

Full dis­clos­ure: I have done paid work in the past for Arkles Entertainment (dis­trib­ut­or of The War Within) and am design­ing their new web site which will be live next week.