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Review: Moonrise Kingdom and The Expendables 2

By Cinema and Reviews

Moonrise Kingdom posterWes Anderson may be the cur­rently work­ing dir­ect­or least suited to using 3D. His scenes are often flat tableaux with his char­ac­ters spread out lat­er­ally across the screen. If he was telling the story of Moonrise Kingdom 1,000 years ago it would be a tapestry, like Bayeux, and I think he’d prob­ably be OK with that.

That visu­al style suited the pup­petry of the delight­ful Fantastic Mr Fox but this new film pop­u­lates the flat, the­at­ric­al, planes with liv­ing, breath­ing human act­ors – not just act­ors, movie stars (includ­ing Bruce Willis and Ed Norton).

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Review: Brother Number One, We Need to Talk About Kevin, John Carter, My Week With Marilyn, Headhunters and Warrior

By Cinema and Reviews

Project X posterEvery week on Cinematica – the movie pod­cast I co-host with Simon Werry and Kailey Carruthers – we sign-off each film with a two-word review. It’s a gag, of course, but no more reduct­ive than “two thumbs up” or “two stars”, and it’s become a bit of a meme with listen­ers sup­ply­ing their own – often extremely good – contributions.

Underworld: Awakening posterAnd see­ing as I missed a column through ill­ness last week, I have a feel­ing that my two-word reviews might come in handy help­ing us to catch up. So, for the found-footage High School party-gone-wrong movie Project X for example, my two-word review is “Toxic Waste”. The third sequel in the vam­pires vs lycans styl­ised action fran­chise, Underworld: Awakening gets “Strobe Headache”. And for the notori­ously low budget found-footage posession-horror The Devil Inside you’ll have to make do with “Didn’t Watch”.

Brother Number One posterWhich brings us to the good stuff (and there’s plenty of it about at the moment). Brother Number One is a superb and affect­ing NZ doco about trans-atlantic row­er Rob Hamill’s attempts to find out the truth about his broth­er Kerry’s dis­ap­pear­ance at the hands of the Khmer Rouge régime in Cambodia. This is a film to remind you that the great tides of his­tory aren’t tides at all and if you look closely enough you see mil­lions of indi­vidu­al stor­ies – of heart­break, tragedy and redemption.

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Review: Un prophète, I Am Love, Centurion and The Runaways

By Cinema and Reviews

In a week when film fans are mourn­ing the passing of the French great Claude Chabrol (80 year old co-pioneer of the French New Wave) it’s pleas­ing to report that there’s still someone in France mak­ing watch­able movies. In fact, Jacques Audiard’s last two films have been abso­lute crack­ers (Read My Lips, The Beat My Heart Skipped) and his latest is eas­ily one of the best you will see this or any year.

In Un prophète (A Prophet), Audiard has man­aged to make an intim­ate epic, a film about grand themes while (for the most part) nev­er leav­ing the con­fines of the French pris­on where our hero is incar­cer­ated. He is Malik El Djabena (new­comer Tahar Rahim) and he’s a nine­teen year old petty crim­in­al inside for assault­ing a cop. In exchange for the pro­tec­tion of the Corsican mob lead­er who runs the joint (Niels Arestrup) he murders an Arab inform­er, an incid­ent that will lit­er­ally haunt him through­out the film.

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Review: Michael Jackson’s This is It, My Year Without Sex, The Limits of Control and Black Ice

By Cinema, paramount and Reviews

Thi is It posterFull dis­clos­ure: I wrote a play about Michael Jackson once (“Dirty Doris”, BATS 1995) so I’ll con­fess to always being inter­ested in the real char­ac­ter behind the tabloid and music video façade so the arrival of This is It (what some have described as a cheap cash-in flick) is of more than passing interest to me.

And of all the pos­sible adject­ives avail­able to describe the film “cheap” would seem to be the least appro­pri­ate. This behind-the-scenes doc­u­ment­ary, made up of foot­age inten­ded for “Making of” extras on an even­tu­al DVD plus han­dic­am foot­age for Jackson’s own per­son­al archive, shows a ded­ic­ated bunch of ser­i­ously tal­en­ted people pre­par­ing a huge stage show for an audi­ence of demand­ing fans. However, no one involved is more demand­ing than the star of the show MJ himself.

In the film we see Jackson and his crack team rehears­ing the massive series of 50 London shows that were sup­posedly to mark his retire­ment from live per­form­ance. Pushing 50, with a body battered from years of ill­ness and tour­ing, suf­fer­ing from anxiety-induced insom­nia, Jackson knew that audi­ences only wanted the moon­walk­ing King of Pop per­sona, an act that he wouldn’t be able to main­tain much longer. So, he wanted to go out with a bang, with some­thing mem­or­able, and he was evid­ently very ser­i­ous about put­ting on a truly amaz­ing show.

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Review: Burn After Reading, Body of Lies and The Duchess

By Cinema and Reviews

Burn After Reading posterOh, what kind of year is 2008 that has two Coen Brothers films with­in it? In February I was swoon­ing over No Country for Old Men and now, just a few short months later, I’ve been treated to Burn After Reading, a scath­ing and bit­ter com­edy about mod­ern American ignor­ance. It’s a vicious, sav­age, des­pair­ing and bril­liant farce: full of won­der­ful char­ac­ters who are at the same time really awful people.

John Malkovich is Osbourne Cox, a failed CIA ana­lyst who loses a disk con­tain­ing his mem­oirs. It’s found by Hardbodies gym staff Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt, who decide to black­mail him so that she can pay for some unne­ces­sary cos­met­ic pro­ced­ures. Meanwhile (and there’s a lot of mean­whiles), Malkovich’s wife (Tilda Swinton) is hav­ing an affair with sex addict George Clooney, who is cheat­ing on her, and his wife, with Internet one night stands (that include the lonely McDormand). The disk ends up at the Russian Embassy, Pitt ends up in the Chesapeake and the only truly nice per­son in the whole film ends up with a hatchet in his head.

It’s no acci­dent that this col­lec­tion of men­tal and spir­itu­al pyg­mies can be found pop­u­lat­ing Washington D.C. Over the last eight years it has become the world centre of incom­pet­ence, venal­ity, short-sightedness and polit­ic­al expedi­ence and the film plays as an enraged satire about the end of the American Empire. We can only hope.

Body of Lies posterThe self-indulgent part­ner­ship between Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe gets anoth­er trot out in Body of Lies, a laboured action-thriller about anti-terrorism in the Middle East. Half-decent Leonardo DiCaprio is the lead. He plays hon­our­able field agent Roger Ferris, hunt­ing the Osama-like Al Saleem from Iraq to Jordan via Amsterdam and Langley. Crowe spends most of the film coach­ing DiCaprio via cell­phone and a good olé boy Southern accent. The twist in this film is that he is a boor­ish, ignor­ant, arrog­ant oaf who fails to appre­ci­ate that win­ning hearts and minds is essen­tial to win the war on ter­ror: DiCaprio’s char­ac­ter, an arab­ic speak­er with an appre­ci­ation for the region and its people, is con­tinu­ally being hung out to dry by his bosses who simply don’t think the Middle East is worth any­thing more than the oil that lies beneath it.

Unfortunately for Body of Lies (a ter­rible, mean­ing­less title), the whole film is thick with cliché and while Scott’s eye for a set-piece remains keen his ear for dia­logue is still made of tin.

The Duchess posterAnother ter­rible noth­ing title (but for a bet­ter film) is The Duchess. A naïve young Spencer girl is plucked from Althorp to marry a power­ful older man. She soon finds that it is not a love match and that her emo­tion­ally closed off hus­band sees her as a baby fact­ory while he enjoys life with his mis­tress. Our heroine uses her celebrity to bring atten­tion to polit­ic­al causes and falls in love with a hand­some young man, but hap­pi­ness and free­dom is always too far away. Sounds famil­i­ar, I know, but this story isn’t set in the 1990’s but in the 18th cen­tury and this Spencer isn’t Diana, but her eer­ily sim­il­ar ancest­or Georgiana (Keira Knightley).

Knightley is fine as the spir­ited, but even­tu­ally broken, young woman; Ralph Fiennes has good moments as the bru­tish Duke of Devonshire and Charlotte Rampling deliv­ers anoth­er icy turn as Georgiana’s cal­cu­lat­ing moth­er. The Duchess is a fine his­tory les­son with some nice obser­va­tions: my favour­ite is the paparazzi at every social occa­sion, pen­cils sharpened to sketch the scan­dals as they unfold.

Sadly, I have been too busy in recent weeks to pre­view any of the titles in this year’s Italian Film Festival but the pro­gramme looks a good and inter­est­ing one as always. The films in the Italian Festival have always leaned towards the com­mer­cial and this year is no dif­fer­ent. Crowd pleas­ing com­ed­ies like The Littlest Thing rub shoulders with romances like Kiss Me Baby, dra­mas (The Unknown Woman) and thrillers: Secret Journey. My pick looks like it could be a com­bin­a­tion of all those genres, the romantic black com­edy Night Bus. Moving to the Embassy this year should do the event the power of good but it’s a pity about the poorly proofed pro­gramme though.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 15 October, 2008.

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: All three films were screened at the Empire in Island Bay. Body of Lies and The Duchess were at pub­lic screen­ings and Burn After Reading was the Sunday night print check (for staff), so thanks to the Empire people for invit­ing me to that.

Review: Unknown, Stephanie Daley, Rush Hour 3, La Vie En Rose and Deep Water

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

Unknown posterAs recoun­ted by cel­eb­rated neur­o­lo­gist Oliver Sacks in a recent New Yorker, amne­sia is a fas­cin­at­ing con­di­tion. In the art­icle he tells the story of clas­sic­al musi­cian Clive Wearing who, due to enchaphal­it­is more than 20 years ago, can retain new memor­ies for no longer than a few seconds. The dev­ast­a­tion of his case is tran­scen­ded by two things: the love of his wife (which he is aware of even though he sees her as if for the first time every day) and his music­al abil­ity which remains complete.

In Hollywood, amne­sia (like oth­er dis­orders) is rarely por­trayed as a tra­gic con­di­tion with ser­i­ous and fas­cin­at­ing psy­cho­lo­gic­al impacts but instead is usu­ally just a plot device. New thrill­er Unknown, star­ring Jim Caviezel, Greg Kinnear and Barry Pepper, tries a little bit of both.

In a remote aban­doned chem­ic­al ware­house five men wake up with no memor­ies of who they are or how they got there. Two of the group have been kid­napped, the oth­ers are the gang. But who?

While all the evid­ence points to Caviezel being one of the kid­nap­pers (he was­n’t tied up at the begin­ning for a start) he does­n’t feel like one and, des­pite the shift­ing alle­gi­ances and Lord of the Flies power-plays, he attempts to bind the group togeth­er so they can all escape before the ringlead­er returns with the ransom. It’s an inter­est­ing exist­en­tial­ist pro­voca­tion although, in the end, fur­ther psy­cho­lo­gic­al insight is sac­ri­ficed in favour of yet anoth­er plot twist.

Stephanie Daley posterInsight is what forensic psy­cho­lo­gist Tilda Swinton is after in Stephanie Daley. Heavily preg­nant, and still mourn­ing the loss of a pre­vi­ous unborn child, she is asked to inter­view the eponym­ous school­girl (Amber Tamblyn) who is accused of con­ceal­ing her own preg­nancy and then mur­der­ing the new-born baby. Her exam­in­a­tion will decide the fate of the tim­id young Christian girl who may indeed be too inno­cent to real­ize what a drunk­en date-rape can lead to. Stephanie Daley is a well acted drama with a fine sense of place, loc­ated in snowy upstate New York, and a lot going on under the surface.

Rush Hour 3 posterBack at the mul­ti­plex, Rush Hour 3 is one of the poorest excuses for enter­tain­ment it is been my mis­for­tune to wit­ness. And to think that part-timer Chris Tucker was paid $25m to star in it (a fee which evid­ently did not require any time at the gym to pre­pare). Jackie Chan is show­ing his age too. Abject.

La Vie En Rose posterI spent most of the time watch­ing La Vie En Rose think­ing that I’d seen the film some­where before. A beau­ti­fully art dir­ec­ted recre­ation of the life of a troubled artist from the wrong side of the tracks, dev­ast­ated by drug addic­tion and guilt, it could have been Ray or Walk The Line except for the fact that little Edith Piaf did­n’t have time for the redemp­tion and tri­umph that the Hollywood biop­ics demand.

Piaf was an extraordin­ary char­ac­ter, a huge and vibrant voice in a frail and tiny frame. Writer-director Olivier Dahan makes con­sist­ently inter­est­ing choices (par­tic­u­larly a death-bed mont­age at the end which amaz­ingly con­tains noth­ing that we have seen before) and Marion Cotillard plays Piaf with all the fierce and demen­ted self-destructive energy she can sum­mon up. She’s a force of nature and it is one of the per­form­ances of the year.

Deep Water posterFinally, superb doc­u­ment­ary Deep Water finally gets the prom­ised com­mer­cial release and I urge you not to miss it. And, if you already saw it at the Festival check it out again as it’s quite a dif­fer­ent film second time around.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 3 October, 2007.

Full dis­clos­ure: Unknown is dis­trib­uted in New Zealand by Arkles Entertainment who pay me money to do stuff for them from time to time.