Now Showing, June 7 2012

By Helene Wong, David Larsen In Now Showing

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A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

A

A Dangerous Method

A Dangerous Method This appears to be a three-legged stool of a film, supported equally by major performances from Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud, Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, and Keira Knightley as Sabina Spielrein, Jung’s patient and lover, and one of the first female psychoanalysts. In actual fact it is a film powered by Mortensen (a brilliant Freud), Fassbender (a fascinating Jung, though the particular ways in which he fascinates will be exasperatingly familiar to anyone who’s seen his last half dozen films; it isn’t that he’s any less good here, but it would be nice if he’d add some new strings to his bow), and the excellent work of director David Cronenberg, screenwriter Christopher Hampton (adapting his own play), production designer James McAteer, and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky. That’s a long list of very able people, and all of their efforts taken together just about make up for Knightley’s unfortunate mix of over- and under-acting. This is a fine film built around material of major significance, intelligent, visually beautiful, full of well turned dramatic moments and challenging ideas. It’s also the latest in a long line of Keira Knightley films that could have been quite a lot better if the female lead role had been given to someone else. Full review here3.5/5 DL

A Separation

A Separation Very few of the people I’ve discussed this Iranian masterpiece with in the nine months or so since it screened at last year’s film festival have failed to report that it blew them away. The subject matter is severe, though not extreme: a couple in the throes of a contested divorce get caught up in a legal dispute with another couple, less educated, less prosperous, and far more religious than they are. Director Asghar Farhadi attends to each of the four litigants with a spacious, careful respect; this is multiple perspective storytelling raised to a high art, and the acting, like the camera work, is so unshowy you could almost fail to notice how good it is. Without much in the way of stylistic bells and whistles, Farhadi earns himself a place at the very top of his profession. Full review here. 5/5 DL

C

Carnage Curious: Roman Polanski’s adaptation of this four-hander stage play is so intelligently shot and so well cast that the limits of the source material become glaringly obvious… and yet, being so intelligently shot and so well cast, it’s still a treat to watch. Two New York pre-teen boys get into a fight. One knocks the other’s teeth out, and the parents of the evil-doer go over to the victim’s apartment to apologise to his parents. Much back-handed courtesy ensues; and then things go downhill; and then things go off a cliff. Jodie Foster reminds you just how good she can be; her role is perhaps the juiciest, but Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, and John C Reilly all shine as the other warring spouses. Polanski’s direction is a masterclass in getting the most out of a small set without resorting to attention-getting weird camera placement stunts – brief opening and closing sequences aside, the film takes place entirely in one small New York apartment, but it never feels cramped or visually static. The play ultimately wastes its best satirical opportunities in favour of over-the-top couples-on-the-warpath humour, but it’s hard to object too strenuously when it’s done this well. 3.5/5 DL

Chinese Take-Away

Chinese Take-Away The obvious phrases to describe Chinese Takeaway – “charming”, “warmhearted”, “delightful” – would be perfectly adequate, except that the opening, a prologue of wonderful absurdity, introduces an almost magical element that wafts this Argentinian film beyond cliché. In Buenos Aires, the chance meeting of a solitary, grumpy shopkeeper (Ricardo Darín of The Secret in Their Eyes) and a penniless Chinese immigrant (Huang Sheng Huang) sparks a tale of human connection and coincidence that unwinds gently and surprisingly without ever feeling engineered. Darín is deadpan amusing, and Huang’s almost exclusively nonverbal performance is just right. 3.5/5 HW

Coriolanus Taut and thrilling, Ralph Fiennes’ adaptation (with writer John Logan) of this Shakespearean tragedy is a triumph for him as both actor and director. Set in Rome but with sly visual referencing of contemporary theatres of civil war (Eastern Europe, the Middle East), this production takes the concept of “opening it up” by the scruff of its neck and hurls us into a cinematic telling that’s visceral and urgent in look and feel, yet never sacrifices the tragic psychology at its heart. Shaven-headed and dead-eyed, Fiennes is a truly scary Martius – dubbed Coriolanus after he saves Rome – a soldier hero lugging a bag of pride, anger and disdain which curdle into a shocking vengeance that we know cannot – must not – end well. Even his mother Volumnia (pretty dodgy herself when it comes to patriotic bloodlust, as underscored by Vanessa Redgrave’s appearance in military drag), cannot tame the monster in her son. Fear and pity indeed. Showing in Auckland and Hamilton only. 4/5 HW

D

Dark Shadows

Dark Shadows It’s a Tim Burton film. It’s also a remake of a cult TV classic, in the “obscure, still has fans, probably dreadful even in its day” sense of that phrase, and you could certainly see its many and various weaknesses as side-effects of the distorting compressions, elisions and exaggerations that tend to go on when Hollywood reimagines a small screen property. But I’d put most of the blame on those increasingly ominous words, “a Tim Burton film”. In an astonishing departure, Johnny Depp stars as a whimsically drawn comic character with overtones of menace. (In this instance, a 200-year old vampire, newly released from the grave and working his way down a long list of of fish-out-of-water cliches as he gets to grips with that mod, mod year, 1972). Helena Bonham Carter has a pointless supporting role, the set design is gorgeously overdone, and neither the story nor the characters have any great dramatic coherence. So yes, a Tim Burton film, and not one of the now vanishingly rare ones where he seems to care about what he’s doing. But it isn’t his worst. I laughed a few times, smiled quite often, said “Give me a break” only once or twice. With Michelle Pfeiffer as the matriarch of Johnny Depp’s dysfunctional clan of descendants (she’s great), and Eva Green as his immortal lovesick nemesis. (Sorry, Casino Royale fans, I’m calling it: she simply cannot act). 2.5/5 DL

E

Event Cinemas Retro Showcase Running through June in Auckland, Wellington and Hamilton, an array of classics from the 30s to the 90s, the way they were meant to be seen: on a big screen. The 13 titles, which include favourites such as Gone With the Wind, Dr. No and Bridge on the River Kwai, all have great entertainment value. With a damp autumn predicted, what better way to pass it than Singin’ in the Rain? Dates and cinemas: www.eventcinemas.co.nz

G

Good For Nothing

Good For Nothing It’s a Western. It was made in New Zealand. South Otago and the McKenzie Country stand in (brilliantly) for the mid-American plains. Cohen Holloway (Boy, Eagle Vs Shark) plays Clint Eastwood, or at least, Clint Eastwood as he might have been, were the classic Eastwood characters of yore more inclined to rape people, and more troubled by erectile dysfunction. Holloway’s great, and the film looks magnificent – first-time DOP Mathew Knight should be getting lots more work offers. The potential difficulty is the rape-driven storyline, in which Holloway’s Man With No Name abducts Isabella Montgomery (Inge Rademeyer, very good in her first screen role), a young British woman with a lot of romantic ideas about the American West. Director Mike Wallace sets out to explode every one of these ideas, and his humour is so dry you could frequently miss it altogether: especially while his hero is attempting (and failing) to rape his heroine. Male impotence is the film’s grand comic theme, and it works very nicely in a running gag about a sheriff who can’t shoot straight, but the funny side of rape is harder to locate than Wallace possibly realises. The thing which ultimately sold me on the film despite its wince-inducing moments is the John Psathas score, at once so original, so stirring and so evocative of the great Western soundtracks of the past. Psathas has never scored a film before. He’s going to be in hot demand internationally as a film composer from now on; not that he needs the work, but I hope he takes some of it. I haven’t been this impressed by film music in a long time. The first thing I wanted to do after watching the film was to find out more about his contribution, and happily, Guy Somerset has an interview with him here. 3/5 DL

H

Happy Happy

Happy Happy Of course the title’s ironic. It’s Norway, and it’s bleak midwinter. But Kaja, an irrepressibly cheerful young woman, and the humour that emanates mischievously out of the story, soon warms things up. When Kaja and her husband rent the house next door to another couple, secrets and lies start leaking out all over the place. In between, there’s a bit of singing (well, it’s Scandinavia, so naturally there’s a choir) and a barbershop quartet that keeps inserting itself like a Greek chorus. If this is starting to sound like a smorgasbord, you’re right, but somehow the script and the director manage to wrangle it all home to a civilised – and yes, happy, conclusion. 2.5/5 HW

J

Jiro Dreams of Sushi The perfect subject for an unlikely hit biographical documentary meets not quite the perfect film-maker. Jiro Ono is a Japanese sushi chef. Actually, he’s the Japanese sushi chef, 85 years old when this film was made and widely viewed as the zen master of his field. People wait months and years for a booking at his little Tokyo sushi bar, where he serves them whatever he thinks they ought to eat: the simplest of food, prepared by a living exemplar of the principle that you should devote your life to perfecting your art. And what kind of father and boss does a man like that make? We meet Jiro’s various apprentices, one of whom is his son and presumptive heir; they’re stoical about the decades they’re expected to devote to learning to cook rice, after which Jiro may, possibly, allow them to invest further decades in learning to slice fish. It’s fascinating material, but it presents director David Gelb with a problematic challenge: when your subject is constantly emphasising the importance of getting the little things right, your audience is likely to pay more attention than usual to your editing, your choice of music cues, and, generally speaking, your broad-spectrum technical competence. To say that Gelb’s work is not up to Jiro’s standards is to put it kindly, because few people’s would be – but a lot of directors would come far closer than he does. 3/5 DL

L

Last Will

Last Will A reporter yawning her way through the annual Nobel Prize ball in Stockholm is shocked awake when the couple next to her on the dance floor gets gunned down. One of them was a controversial genetics researcher. The other was the head of the Nobel committee. Which one was the target? Before she can follow up, the police slap a gag order on her: and if you imagine she doesn’t follow up anyway, or that her research doesn’t nearly get her killed, you’re imagining a far less by-the-numbers story than this one. As crusading journalist murder mysteries go, this is entertaining enough, but it suffers from one of the major problems of the form – having asked you to switch your brain on and attend to its trail of clues, it then has to come up with a plot resolution which doesn’t insult your intelligence. Don’t hold your breath. 3/5 DL

Le Havre I hesitate to call this a sweet, funny comedy of intergenerational kindness – although it’s a description anyone coming out of the film would be likely to agree to enthusiastically – because the humour is so understated, so deadpan, that it takes a while to creep up on you. In other words, not a good film to go into expecting instant hilarity. An old man and his elderly neighbours help a young illegal immigrant evade France’s immigration police, just because it strikes them as the right thing to do. Full review here4/5 DL

Letters To Father Jacob A simple tale that’s all done in 74 minutes, yet with the depth, meaning and impact of something much, much bigger. Father Jacob, elderly and blind, lives in a far-flung corner of Finland. The letters are from seekers of advice and comfort, and the task of reading them aloud to him is taken up by Leila, a surly ex-prisoner, recently pardoned. They barely communicate, yet out of the sparseness of her daily routine and silent observing, a glimmer of compassion begins to grow. The quiet unfolding of the story has that compassion taking her to a place that neither she nor we could have suspected, and yet, even as we recover from the intensity and emotion of the surprise, it all makes perfect sense. Crafted beautifully, shot atmospherically, and performed with the kind of restraint that speaks volumes, this is an affirmation of faith, forgiveness and humanity that even nonbelievers can buy. 5/5 HW

M

Margaret

Margaret If you’re lucky enough to live near one of the few cinemas showing Kenneth Lonergan’s superb second film, which is back from World Cinema Showcase in a very limited release, there are two things you need to know. First, it had the most tortuous production history of any important film of the last decade, and was finally rushed out into the world after years of delay. (Short version: it’s a long, complex, challenging work, and studio execs willing to take the risk of greenlighting its release proved hard to find). The final edit had to be done in a hurry – a ridiculous irony given that the actual filming was complete years ago; if Anna Pacquin and Matt Damon look far younger here than you’ve seen them in a while, it’s because you’re seeing them as they were in 2005 - and the film you’ll see on the screen is maybe 25 minutes shorter than Lonergan’s preferred version, meaning several subplots have been seriously truncated. But the second thing you should know is that this remains one of the great films of the year. I’ve seen it twice, and I’ll see it again. Pacquin plays a privileged New York teenager who witnesses a fatal accident, and sets out on a crusade to get justice for the victim. You can’t take your eyes off her; whatever you think of True Blood, this performance makes it very clear that paranormal soap opera does not call on the full range of her abilities. And while hers is the dominant performance of the film, it’s a long way from being the only impressive one. Lonergan deploys a first rate cast in an expansive, beautifully shot story which amounts to a hymn to New York. 4.5/5 DL

Margin Call Moral fibre is conspicuous by its absence in JC Chandor’s compelling imagining of what happened the day the music died on Wall Street. Or rather, the day the musician-traders watched in paralysed horror as the volume began to fade from 11. The resulting overnight scramble, overseen by a CEO based not-so-loosely on Lehman Brothers’ John Tuld, and played to eminence gris perfection by Jeremy Irons, is a visual orchestration of internalised spinelessness and panic. It also earned Chandor a well deserved screenplay nomination in this year’s Oscars. And unlike documentary treatments of the crisis (eg., Inside Job), there are no whizzbang diagrams or jargon garble to grapple with. Some of these players admit to not really getting any of this stuff either, so, usefully for us, have to have it explained over and over. It’s an example of the way the film humanises those we would normally label greedy bastards, but it doesn’t let them off the hook, either. Kevin Spacey heads a good, solid ensemble of unshowy performers, and a nice surprise is that one of them is Demi Moore. Review here. 4/5 HW

Men In Black 3

Men In Black 3 One of the better moments in this surprisingly entertaining revival of a seemingly dead franchise involves people standing on top of Manhattan’s Chrysler building, watching a fleet of alien warships devastate the skyline. It’s only a few weeks since I saw Thor standing on top of that same building while a fleet of alien warships devastated that same skyline. It’s a beautiful building, and, as someone commented dryly in the wake of The Avengers, wrecking New York for fun is one of the ways we show the terrorists they didn’t beat us; but would some filmmaker out there mind working up a few new images for future pop entertainment to overuse? Our decade just doesn’t seem to be pulling its weight in the visual cliche generation business; and the extent to which it’s instantly forgettable is the main black mark against this film. Still, you don’t need to remember every soft drink you ever drank, and as disposable products go, this is an honest one: far more than the second film in the series, it works hard to give you an actual story, not just a bunch of gimmicky set pieces. Will Smith – absent from our screens since Hancock four years ago – is in likable form, and Josh Brolin does an astonishingly convincing turn as a young version of Tommy Lee Jones. (Do I mean Tommy Lee Jones’s character? I really don’t. These characters barely exist except as vehicles for channeling star personas). Curious to say, the film manages to err a little on the side of too much story and too little “aliens are all around us” gimmickry (though the time travelling visit to Andy Warhol’s Factory was a stroke of genius on someone’s part), and Emma Thompson, as the highest profile new name on the bill, is largely wasted. But Jemaine Clement does excellent work as – well, let’s not say who as; I knew he was in the film and I still failed to spot him. And in general, this is a fun bit of light SF action. Oh, the 3D? Perfunctory. 3.5/5 DL

P

Prometheus

Prometheus You have a long directing career. You have made half a dozen highly popular films, but only two of lasting importance, and you made them thirty years ago. You decide to go back and make follow-ups to each of them. In the case of Alien, you opt for a prequel. Alien starts with the discovery of an unknown species on an unexplored planet, so right off the bat, your audience know that whatever happens in your new film, word of it will not get back to Earth. This rather reduces the suspense as to the likelihood of many of your characters surviving, so it would appear that you either 1) have a cunning plan for moving this franchise, which has produced as many bad films as good ones, out of the suspense game, or 2) have a cunning plan for wresting suspense from the jaws of your audience’s expectations, or 3) are inviting the inevitable comparisons with your younger self to no good purpose whatsoever. But it surely won’t be the last of these? You’re Ridley Scott, legend! You even made a film called Legend once! Though you prefer not to talk about that one much these days. And if you were smart, you would have given yourself the option of not taking about this one either. By not making it. It’s a mess. A confused and desperately pretentious screenplay attempts to fuse lofty questions about the meaning of human life to the old “Who’s going to die next?” game, with a side order of poorly judged and poorly executed body violation horror. The original film was a tightly constructed Freudian nightmare, startling to its first audiences in ways that are hard to appreciate three decades later. Scott was never likely to equal it, though the hope that he might come close has driven pre-release expectations of Prometheus quite as much as its expertly conducted marketing campaign. He’s delivered an undeniably handsome film, and some will find its striking visuals partial compensation for its narrative and thematic failure. I go the other way. So much talent on display to so little purpose makes me grind my teeth with frustration. If Scott’s upcoming Blade Runner sequel is as disappointing as this one, he will be hearing from my dentist. 2/5 DL

S

Salmon Fishing In The Yemen

Salmon Fishing In The Yemen I thought this was supposed to be a satire of British politics, based on Paul Torday’s book, but Simon Beaufoy’s script has channelled most of the comedy into a light and quirky romance, producing more of a chickflick than commentary. Odd couple Harriet – assistant to a progress-minded Yemeni sheik who decides to have a go at introducing North Atlantic salmon to the desert – and Fred, the government fisheries expert recruited to help her, spend most of the film behaving as though what we know is going to happen between them isn’t going to happen, only you couldn’t exactly call it sexual tension. Despite the contrivance and predictability, it’s gentle and amusing enough to pass the time – although when the satire does put in an appearance, in the form of an OTT Kristin Scott Thomas as the PM’s media minder, it almost punches a hole in the screen with the force (farce?) of its caricature. And thus loses much of its satirical power. Emily Blunt as Harriet, and Ewan McGregor as Fred are fine, but are hardly exercised by this material. OK if you like your salmon in spring water rather than oil. 2.5/5 HW

Shihad: Beautiful Machine Fans will enjoy this inside look and its generous use of archive footage of both the onstage and offstage life of the band. If you’re not a fan, you’ll still appreciate the choice to focus on the personal stories, even though they track the familiar rise-and-fall arc of most band documentaries. They’re frank about the personal highs and lows, and there’s a decent section on THAT decision to change their name when they went to conquer America. Although it would have been good to have explained why they chose as its replacement a word that Americans use for a baby’s dummy. I mean, what were they on? Oh, right. Overall, as competently made as it is, it never rises above mere document … except for the moment when we first clap eyes on Jon Toogood’s Mum’s splendid tat. Now there’s a story. 2.5/5 HW

Starbuck

Starbuck Charming French-Canadian comedy based around one of the great comedy film tropes of our time, the Boy-Man Who Needs To Grow Up. Patrick Huard plays David Wozniak, a middle aged loser perpetually supported by his long-suffering family and on the verge of being dumped by his long-suffering girlfriend. Who is, it transpires, pregnant, and disinclined to see David as a good potential father figure. While he’s dithering over how to respond to this unwelcome turn of events, he discovers he is, in fact, a father figure already: long ago, he raised some much-needed quick cash by selling his sperm to a fertility clinic. He now has 533 children. And they’re challenging his anonymous donor status in court. Surprisingly witty, surprisingly sweet, and in the end, surprisingly moving. 4/5 DL

T

The Avengers

The Avengers Superhero movie agnostics, here is your test case: if you don’t like this one, you’re never going to like any of them. This is not quite to say that writer/director Joss Whedon has squared the circle and produced the perfect marriage of big budget action and old fashioned storytelling, but my god, it’s hard to imagine anyone getting much closer. To put it at its crudest, this is a film where the fight scenes have actual characters in them. I could have done without the rent-a-villain hordes of aliens who turn up in the final act (no spoiler; we see them coming from the first scene) so that our cast of heroes, having fought each other a bit and then other people a bit, can take things to the next level (in the computer games sense) and fight a city-levelling, world-threatening army a bit; or rather, I’d have liked it if the aliens had been slightly less anonymous. And that final battle does go on rather. But it’s so cleanly composed as an action sequence, so easy to follow, and, thanks to the work Whedon’s put into building his subplots and establishing his characters, it’s so full of moments that have meaning: it is in fact a character-driven final battle, a thing which any student of the works of Michael Bay might have taken to be a contradiction in terms. And the process of getting to it is just pure fun. Robert Downey Jnr and Tom Hiddleston get the best of Whedon’s many good lines, playing Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Loki (evil brother of Thor), respectively, and their big scene together was my favourite one by far; but this is an ensemble film, and none of the characters is neglected. Even the Incredible Hulk gets to be a real person here, and many another character who’s annoyed or baffled me in previous Marvel films serves a meaningful purpose. I still rank the much-neglected Serenity – another ensemble action movie requiring a degree of investment in a previously established story universe for full appreciation – as Whedon’s best work on the big screen. But only by a whisker. Interview with Brian Michael Bendis, writer of the Avengers comics and consultant on the movie, hereUpdate: I forgot to mention that I saw this in 3D, which tells you all you need to know on the format choice question. If I were seeing this again, and I most likely will, I can’t think of any reason to pay more for the 3D version; on the other hand, if someone insists on thrusting 3D tickets into your hand, the 3D isn’t the murky, irritating kind that sabotages your enjoyment. 4/5 DL

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel Not to be mistaken for any kind of masterpiece, but don’t underrate the professional expertise required to put a good, likeable ensemble culture-clash comedy together. Director John Madden throws a dream cast of senior British actors – Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton – into a run-down Indian “luxury retirement facility”, and they have a satisfying amount of fun there. At its weakest when it tries to be serious and meaningful, but never less than pleasant. Longer review here. 3.5/5 DL

The Deep Blue Sea

The Deep Blue Sea Just as he has done in his previous work (Distant Voices, Still Lives, and The Long Day Closes), Terence Davies imbues his version of Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play with the atmosphere of postwar Britain, evoking sombre tones and a mood of melancholic limbo. The sing-alongs are there, too, with all their nostalgia and comment on the action. And there is a story, of forbidden love between a dashing airman (Tom Hiddleston) and a judge’s young wife (Rachel Weisz), but it’s a barebones one, told through her memories of episodes that play like, well, scenes from a play. Such a tenuous narrative might work if we could get inside the characters, but there’s so much repression at work here – of passion, of expression of hopes and desires – that they are too opaque. Yes, we get that she’s yearning for a more sensual life, and that he’s unsettled by his war experiences and unable to give her what she wants, but the stylized treatment keeps us at a distance, and we never quite care. 2.5/5 HW

The Dictator Borat was a work of demented genius. Bruno… wasn’t. And now we get to see what Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles can do by way of in-your-face, sacred-cow-slaughtering comedy when they strip away the fake documentary device. Who would have thought it would be this little? Cohen plays Aladeen, the title despot, a North African strongman on a mission to defend his nation’s nuclear program to the UN Assembly. A coup attempt – courtesy of a grand vizier character played by Ben Kingsley, whose loyalty to his Hugo co-star must have overwhelmed his sense of self-preservation – leaves Aladeen lost on the streets of New York, where he proceeds to say ever such daringly rude things about women, Jews, blacks, and whoever else he can think of. None of it’s at all funny, and the implication that liberal sensibilities can be bruised by such lame wannabe offensiveness is the only shocking thing on offer. That, and the revelation that Cohen, who bottled lightning with Borat, could sink this low. 1.5/5 DL

The Five Year Engagement Comedy-drama with some nice comedy and some affecting drama, but a high degree of dissonance between the two. Jason Segal and Emily Blunt play a young couple trying to make a life together as their careers pull them in different directions. He puts his work on hold to support hers (of course he does; even today, few people would think it film-worthy if the polarity were reversed), and the consequences of this relationship-saving decision turn out, oh the irony, to be relationship-threatening. A much more satisfying treatment of the tensions between romantic ideals and harsh realities than the recent Like Crazy, but marred by the same very basic problem: the more the lovers start getting on each other’s nerves, the more they become genuinely irritating. Many great moments, but I walked out of the theatre wishing the film had opted either for more comedy, or for less. 3/5 DL

The Grey So. Very. Bizarre. It’s hard to write about the things that make this Liam Neeson man vs nature thriller so improbably ridiculous without getting into serious spoiler territory, but to put it in the most general terms, writer-director Joe Carnahan (whose The A-Team pleased me much more than it seemed to please a lot of people) wants to pull off the big double: on the one hand, a high octane popcorn film about a group of plane wreck survivors trying to get out of the Alaskan wilds while a pack of territorially enraged wolves picks them off one by one (bad choice of plane crash site, guys), and on the other, a serious contemplation of What It Is To Be A Man. The two ambitions aren’t necessarily incompatible, but Carnahan’s notion of well wrought manly dialogue is embarrassingly naff, and when Neeson’s character starts reciting his father’s poetry, it’s time to turn and run. (“Live… and die… on this day. Live… and die… on this day”. Seriously?) Other challenges: a portentous, self-hating Neeson voice-over, and frequent anguished flashbacks to his happier, pre-wife-loss days. And I give very high odds you’ll hate the ending. 2/5 DL

The Hunger Games The sun has nearly set on Twilight, and Harry Potter has finally graduated from Hogwarts. Where will the devoted teen audience dollars come from now? Fear not, Hollywood execs, Suzanne Collins’s futuristic dystopia trilogy is here to save you: and in a startling plot twist, Gary Ross’s adaptation of the first book is cracking good. The usual gotta-race-through-too-much-exposition science fiction book-to-film problem gives the introductory scenes a slight ADD feel – Ross’s fondness for ultra-short takes even in contemplative moments doesn’t help – and the basic shape of the story is highly predictable. But it’s predictable the way a good “underdog runs the table” sports story is predictable, and the intelligent, economical writing, the pleasantly off-the-wall production design and the clean camera work all provide the necessary back-up to Ross’s best decision: casting Jennifer Lawrence in the central role. I’ve seen Lawrence in five films over the last two years, and only Winter’s Bone has made full use of her abilities; she isn’t stretched here, but she lifts the film from adequate-plus to thoroughly entertaining. Excellent supporting work from Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, and a quite unrecognizable Stanley Tucci. 3.5/5 DL

The Kid With A Bike

The Kid With A Bike An abandoned preteen boy teeters on the edge of a very bad future, and a sweet-souled woman sees what’s happening, sees the huge emotional price adopting him is likely to cost her, and does it anyway. The latest film from Belgium’s writer/director/producer Dardenne brothers duo is built around this simple idea, and it’s built very simply. We know almost nothing about the characters’ histories, and key moments (the handful of seconds immediately after the boy’s father tells him to go away and not be part of his life any more, for instance) occur off-screen. In the end, the raw, honest acting of Cecile De France and young Thomas Doret won me over, despite the Dardennes’ poorly judged insistence on treating their characters as figures in a schematic morality tale. Full review here3.5/5 DL

The Pirates: Band of Misfits British claymation specialists Aardman (Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run, Arthur Christmas) deliver the best kids’ movie of the holidays. (Yes, alright, I ran screaming from the prospect of having to watch The Lorax, so that should be “probably the best”). It’s not a classic for the ages, but it’s well crafted, full of quirky humour, and one hundred percent loveable. The only warning note is that the 3D, while perfectly inoffensive, doesn’t add a lot of value; you’ll get just as much fun at the lower 2D ticket price. A lot of the jokes will fly over very small heads, but the story (endearing klutzy Pirate Captain goes all out to win Pirate of the Year, with the possibly self-interested and untrustworthy help of shifty-eyed naturalist Charles Darwin and his supercilious chimpanzee butler) will keep them entertained. 3.5/5 DL

The Raid Ultra-violent martial arts action doesn’t get much better than this. A bunch of Indonesian cops go into a crime lord’s high-rise compound and fight their way up towards the Big Boss. Exceptionally well choreographed, high energy fight scenes make up 85% of the story; which is not quite to say there’s no story. The sort of film where an audience’s collective gasp at some exceptional act of brutality constitutes applause, though at the end my audience did, in fact, applaud. A classic of the form. 4/5 DL

The Way

The Way “You don’t choose a life, Dad; you live one” is the line that tells you what you’re in for. Just so you know. Which isn’t to say this road movie is just an episodic greeting card, but it does have flat patches and the kind of plot predictability that has you knowing what’s going to happen just before it pops up on the screen. Never mind. It has great scenery, since it’s a kind of tourist doco for Spain (interestingly, the landscape looks a lot like New Zealand). An American widower (Martin Sheen) travels to Spain to collect the body of his son, killed when walking the 800km Camino de Santiago, a popular pilgrimage from the French Pyrenees to the Atlantic coast. Dad then decides to do the walk too, but has to suffer some unwanted companions: an irritatingly cheerful Dutchman, an acid Canadian and a garrulous Irishman (sounds like the basis for a joke, but at least the actors here are capable of lifting them above mere stereotype). Sheen does his crusty old bugger routine, and much international bickering ensues before the inevitable hugging and learning. And only after lots of shots of walking, drinking and smoking, some minor jeopardy and a final extraordinary piece of religious theatre which I won’t spoil by divulging. Directed and written by Emilio Estevez, Sheen’s son. The better-behaved one. 2.5/5 HW

The Women On The 6th Floor The pitch for the film probably went something like, “culture clash meets class conflict”, and there’s plenty of fun to be anticipated when Spanish maid Maria replaces a French maid in the Paris household of the middle-class Jouberts. (This did happen in the 60s, when Spanish women sought work and refuge from Franco across the border). Life-changing events ensue from this meeting of Parisian detachment and Spanish exuberance, and although you can see them coming a mile off, they’re played out with light cheerfulness rather than delving into their underlying psychology. Sandrine Kiberlain, who was wondrous in Mademoiselle Chambon, is rather wasted here as Mme Joubert, inevitably upstaged by the bevy of Spanish ladies engulfing her stockbroker husband (Fabrice Luchini), who can’t seem to believe what’s happening to him. Not total froth, but not particularly demanding either. Review here. 3/5 HW

Trishna You don’t need to know Tess of the d’Urbervilles to appreciate Michael Winterbottom’s reinterpretation of Thomas Hardy’s novel, but it might help you over the hump of its melodramatic finale. If you’re not familiar with it, keep in mind that in transporting the action from 19th century England and the Industrial Revolution to 21st century India and globalisation, Winterbottom’s making a valid point about the unintended human cost of social change. The film’s very much in his style – such as it is, given his predilection for trying different genres – with its docudrama rhythms and inclusion of non-actors. Slumdog Millionaire’s Freida Pinto makes a gorgeous Trishna/Tess, and the palaces of Rajasthan make a lovely counterpoint to the rush of Mumbai. 3.5/5 HW

W

Wagner's Dream

Wagner’s Dream Robert Lepage is one of the most exciting theatre writer/director/performers in the world. On the rare occasions he comes to New Zealand, friends of mine will drop whatever they’re doing and fly wherever he’s appearing, and he has equally enthusiastic fans all over the world. The idea of a complete staging of Wagner’s Ring cycle – the great stagecraft challenge of the opera world – using Lepage’s revolutionary ideas was undeniably exciting, when New York’s Metropolitan Opera first announced it a few years ago. It has been one of their great historic disasters. You wouldn’t know this from Susan Fromke’s documentary feature about the project. She has secured enviable access to Lepage, and to the Met’s personnel, from ushers and stage hands right up to the likes of soprano Deborah Voight. The price appears to be an understanding that she’ll drink the kool aid. We get a few brief interviews with grumpy opera patrons, who come across as traditionalist snobs, unwilling to embrace the new; and when Lepage’s computerised stage machinery misbehaves on the opening night of Das Rheingold and ruins the climax, we get a mention of the fact that the New Yorker and New York Times critics came back the next night, so they could assess the opera fairly, but we never hear about what they wrote. Or about the war of words that erupted as a result, or about the slowly hardening consensus that this Ring is a symptom of the Met losing its way. Instead we get a once-over-lightly dash through the lead-in periods for each of the four operas, with very little of the music, and virtually no historical context. There are plenty of intimate moments – we get to see Voight’s first meeting with Lepage, for instance – but never much sense of actual intimacy. Professional performers are not liable to forget when there’s a camera in the room, and when Fromke steps up to ask questions, they’re not probing ones. There was a film of lasting interest begging to be made here. 2.5/5 DL

What To Expect When You’re Expecting Not the sequel to Bridesmaids, and certainly not in that league in its humour, but an entertaining enough merry-go-round of the state of pregnancy. An ensemble of five loosely-related couples at different stages of relationship nudges the film towards something close to unwieldy, but the business (comic) and busyness (narrative) help zoom over the cracks. There are even jokes for blokes, courtesy a tragic stroller-pushing fathers’ group, but they’re mostly lame and irrelevant – which kinda goes for the group itself. There are tears as well, and twists and turns that give the characters simple story arcs in lieu of anything more profound. It’s a shame to single out anyone from this large, competent cast, but Glee’s Matthew Morrison looks pretty happy to have scored his first big film role opposite Cameron Diaz, and Elizabeth Banks delivers good comedy along with a baby. Good clean fun, and minimal cringe except for a bit of barfing and obviously prosthetic baby bumps. 3/5 HW


Click here for more stories and reviews by David Larsen, here for more stories and reviews by Helene Wong.

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