Now Showing, December 8, 2011by David Larsen
New this week: reviews of New Year's Eve and Puss In Boots.
Arthur Christmas Based on the naff bus stop ads, the "klutzy heir to the Santa throne saves Christmas" concept and the lack of confidence suggested by a pre-holidays release date for a Christmas-themed movie, I went into this with fairly low expectations. Had they been fairly high expectations, they would still have been exceeded. The jokes are funny and prolific, the story is clever and fast paced enough to survive a few minor missteps, and the voice cast (James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent) is top drawer and on top form. You absolutely want to take your kids to this movie. DL
Beautiful Lies Pierre Salvadori (Priceless) is back in the south of France again with Audrey Tautou and another of his uneasy comedies about the capacity of humans to walk a fine line between nice and nasty. Longer than it needs to be, and less substantial than it wants to be, but the cast, which includes Nathalie Baye, is fine, and the good intentions-bad consequences plot is suitably farcical. Review here. HW
Beginners Not your usual romantic comedy. The ambient mood is sadness, partly from a son's grief for his father, partly his anxiety about ever being able to commit. But there are enough moments in Mike Mills's idiosyncratic take on his autobiographical story to raise a smile or two. Moving fluidly between past and present to trace an unexpected resonance between his father's coming out in his 70s and his own attempts at a relationship, it's subtly done and as elusive as it is truthful. Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer are upstaged by a cute and very smart jack russell called Arthur. Review here. HW
Cave of Forgotten Dreams Or, Werner does speleology. The idiosyncratic Herzog takes a camera underground into the Chauvet Cave in southern France, and gives us his take – and that of expert researchers – on its 30,000 year-old paintings of animals and traces of Ice Age Paleolithic life. It’s an opportunity only a few can have in situ, and soon the cave itself will be closed, so this is the next best thing. And in 3D, it’s almost as if you’re there. (For those who have difficulty with 3D, this is not about fast-cutting, comin’ at ya tricks. It’s serene, and involving in a good way.) Fascinating to see; tantalising to contemplate. Review here. HW
Contagion Interesting mostly as proof that the global disaster movie is a difficult needle to thread, even when you stuff your cast with A-listers. The early scenes of Steven Soderbergh's pandemic procedural have an efficient zip to them, but as the death toll climbs into the millions, his handful of characters become less and less able to act as representative figures: and that's all this chilly film ever asks them to be. Any film with Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Lawrence Fishburne and Marion Cotillard in its placeholder roles is better off than it might have been, but this ends up feeling oddly bloodless. DL
Drive Think Tarantino, only with more visual panache and a script pared down to the barest of bare minimalist bones. So actually, don't think Tarantino; but this does play his pop-cinema-commenting-on-pop-cinema game. If you're at peace with the notion of extreme violence as legitimate art film shock tactics, and if you're well versed in the great and not-so-great car chase movies of the past, you'll be well placed to enjoy one of the most polarising films of the year. Ryan Gosling is cucumber-cool, odd moments of protracted skull stomping aside. Review here. DL
I Don't Know How She Does It We don't know either. Not seen.
Immortals Swords, sandals, CGI. Not seen. We do recommend this redub of the trailer, however.
In Time How to take the right idea at the right time and turn it into the wrong movie. Andrew Niccol wrote, produced and directed this science fiction allegory of our current rich-get-richer global society, and thus gets all the credit for a fine concept. In the near future, immortality will be available to anyone who can pay for it, but the cost is, the poor die young. Fail to earn 24 hours worth of life today, and you'll fall dead tomorrow: there's economic inequality for you. Niccol also gets the blame for the awful, awful dialogue and the idiotic Bonnie and Clyde plot. Of the film's many sins, the worst is its casting. Justin Timberlake is unremarkable as the ghetto-boy-turned-Robin Hood hero, which puts him on a high plinth of excellence relative to his deadwood costar, Amanda Seyfried; but the chief problem is the large supporting cast. Everyone in this world, however old, is genetically locked at physical age 25, so all the texture of a multi-generational society has to be conveyed without benefit of wrinkles or gray hair. As testing a challenge as this is for a bunch of insipid young twentysomethings, two hours of watching them fail at it is more testing still. DL
Jane Eyre With dozens of adaptations of Charlotte Bronte's classic to choose from, why pick this one? Michael Fassbender plays Rochester. Oh, and Mia Wasikowska is very good in the title role, plus, Judi Dench, and it's by and large intelligently written and directed. But basically, Michael Fassbender plays Rochester. Review here. DL
Jig The ensemble competition documentary, in which we follow a mixed bunch of hopefuls on their way to some sport or art form's World Champs, is a well established format, and a relatively difficult one to bollix up. But here's one way: first, pick an art which involves very, very fast movement of the feet, and fail to show us the learning phases, where we might observe enough at slower speeds to appreciate the differences between performers going all out. Second, be overtly manipulative in editing your footage so some performers will seem ever so charming while others look pushy and desperate to win at costs, even though we learn very little about who they really are. I have no special interest in Irish Dancing, but I also have nothing against it, which is to say I was this film's for the winning. It managed to leave me bored and annoyed. DL
Johnny English Reborn Spy-spoof sequel, again starring Rowan Atkinson as the Mr Bean version of James Bond. British humour at its very broadest. Am torn between pleasure at the good supporting work from The Wire's Dominic West and the divine Rosamund Pike, and annoyance that they're wasting their time on this stuff. The trailer - this is almost unheard of - tells you exactly what to expect, yet doesn't spoil the story. DL
Last Train Home Shattering fly-on-the-wall documentary study of a Chinese family broken on the wheel of economic necessity. The film's attempt to present its subjects as emblems of China's migrant worker population doesn't quite come off, although the sequences in which tens of millions attempt to go home simultaneously for the New Year holiday are breath-taking. (How did the camera survive the crush on those train platforms?) But as a domestic drama, this is remarkable. Review here. DL
Little White Lies The Big Chill goes French. Both funnier and more serious than its American template-setter, this comedy-drama about a group of friends whose holiday is overshadowed when one of their number has a near-fatal accident has a lot going for it, including Francois Cluzet and Marion Cotillard. At two and a half hours, it's not a short night out, but the length lets it build up some real emotional heft. Review here. DL
Midnight In Paris Woody Allen goes to France, taking with him, as usual, a large ensemble of capable actors, and, far less usual, a rather lovely script. It's years - it's decades - since he's written so well for the screen. This giddy intellectual romance is not invulnerable to the same critiques as every other Woody Allen movie since the dawn of time - he's not kind to his female characters, and seems blissfully unaware of the fact - but it's light-hearted, and funny, and seems genuinely, infectiously in love with its setting. Review here. DL
New Year's Eve Imagine a lifeless American sitcom episode. Except you can't change the channel. And the show is two... hours... long. By-the-numbers ensemble comedy does not come more anodyne than this, and the best commentary on its attempts to suggest that humanity is one big happy family - look at all these lives intersecting as a new year begins! look at all these happy endings! - comes from the treatment it gives its non-white characters. In this family, we don't talk about race, but we do quietly ask that some of our poorer cousins sit down the back of the bus: supporting roles only, please. As the clock ticked slowly onwards, I occupied myself trying to remember when Robert De Niro's presence in a film had last counted as a good reason for going to see it. By my count, that would be 1997. DL
One Day The book is apparently very good. The film is adapted by the book's author and directed by Lone Scherfig (An Education), and it would like to be very good too. Serious dramatic intent boils off the screen. Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess are friends. Not lovers, friends. Definitely friends. We see them every year on the same day across decades, a device which in theory gives us a rich experience of life as it's lived, and in practice means one scene after another getting crushed into not quite enough room, and one mood after another not quite establishing itself before the next one comes along. All that's left is the broad outline of the story, and it's both predictable and banal. DL
Pina Wim Wenders waited decades for the 3D technology that would let him do justice to the choreography of Pina Bausch. He waited so long, Pina herself was dead before he could start shooting. Her long-time ensemble perform her work in a variety of settings, some of them, exhilaratingly in this depth-enriched format, outdoors. The extra dimension puts you right there, watching the dance: sometimes it puts you right there among the dancers. It needs to be said that this is not the most accessible film in the world for the dance-illiterate; I did not feel, as I'd hoped to, that an art I've long failed to respond to was finally offering up its secrets. But it's beautifully made, and beautiful to watch, even for the likes of me. For dance enthusiasts, it will be one of the great films of the year. DL
Project Nim Of this year's high profile Hollywood films, the one neither of us managed to see was Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Of the indie documentaries, it was this much praised study of the unethical treatment of a chimpanzee by linguistics researchers. 2011: the year we failed to review ape movies. We have no explanation.
Puss In Boots He was the best thing about Shrek 2 - which probably encouraged them to push out the sequels further than necessary - and now, at last, he's got his own show! Yes, the Ginger known as Puss (voiced by Antonio Banderas, natch), is back. The Shrekian tradition of mashing up fairytale and nursery rhyme characters has been retained, and it boots (sorry) the narrative along nicely; plus we get to learn Puss's origin tail (sorry, sorry) and why he's an outlaw. Yes, he does the thing with the eyes, but actually he has you from the very first frame; he is just so ready for his close-up. And for a lay-dee, too - swashing and buckling his way into a fandango with the feisty Ms Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek). While you couldn't claim the film takes Hollywood animated comedies to the next level, or does anything much with the 3D, it's perfect for the holidays. And proves that underneath the bravado there's just a big ol' pussycat. HW
Real Steel Interesting mostly as a metaphor for its own weaknesses. In the near future, robots replace human fighters on the professional boxing circuit; if they weren't also used to write the screenplay, you'd never guess it. Hugh Jackman (so likeable, but a certified genius at picking bad projects) plays a deadbeat dad forced to spend time with his 11-year-old son, while trucking a giant fighting robot across America. Robot falls apart, son finds beat-up old robot on rubbish pile, beat-up old robot turns out to be sturdier than those flashy modern robots: dad and son get a shot at becoming robot fighting champions. This wretched fusion of chump-to-champion sports movie cliches and touching father-son reconciliation cliches contains all the seeds of a good story, or at least a good-enough one, but it falls flat on every front. DL
Red Dog Aussie charmer based, extremely loosely, on the true tale of a dog who adopted the folk of a little outback mining town and became a legend. More hard drinking blokes with well hidden hearts of gold than you could shake a stick at, and one cracker of a canine actor. Some - okay, many - are going to find this too sentimental; myself, I laughed til I cried. Featuring the best dog vs cat grudge match in cinema history. DL
Red State Kevin Smith (Clerks, Dogma) is back in town. We haven't seen this.
Rest For The Wicked Trailing whiffs of Agatha Christie and Ealing without ever committing to either, this local comedy set in a retirement village succeeds in its intention to tell a story about being old in a way that’s amusing without being disrespectful, but it’s not so great at keeping our attention on the mystery at its centre. Tony Barry and a cast of some of our most senior and experienced actors are good for a few giggles, but the plotting is soft and not as clever as it should be. Review here. HW
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan Wayne Wang's adaptation of Lisa See's novel doesn't have as sprawling and multi-tasking a plot as The Joy Luck Club, but it still manages to get into trouble weaving its way through a plot of two halves - the past and the present. Snow Flower and Lily in the 19th century are mirrored in 21st century Sophia and Nina, girls bound together for eternity by an ancient custom of sisterhood. Though visually lovely at times, the disjointed and somewhat schematic storytelling keeps us at an emotional distance. Review here. HW
Submarine Practically everyone I saw this whimsical British coming-of-age comedy with liked it more than I did: a fact I share with you because there's such a thing as a natural target audience for coming-of-age whimsy, and it's a lot younger than I am. Craig Roberts (last seen beating Jane Eyre over the head with a book) plays Oliver Tate, a cleverer, darker-humoured Adrian Mole. He pines for love, he wins her heart, his parents' marriage seems on the verge of collapse, he tries to help, it all goes horribly wrong: so slowly, and so predictably, and with a ratio of intellectual wit to teenage self-obsession which tips quite a lot too far in the wrong direction for my patience. DL
The Debt Remake of the Israeli film Ha-Hov, adapted by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn (Kick Ass, X-Men: First Class) and directed by John Madden (Shakespeare In Love). An odd combination any way you look at it, but Goldman, Vaughn and Madden make a good team: as do Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Jesper Christiensen, who play two Israeli agents undercover in East Berlin, and a former Nazi they take prisoner. (Sam Worthington, as the third agent, is the weak link). A needlessly lurid ending fails to spoil an espionage suspense story with some good tricks up its sleeve. Review here. DL
The Help Racism, feminism and knowing your place all get an airing in this adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s novel about white women and their black maids in 60s Mississippi. Some exceptional performances, but the Good Housekeeping art direction casts a distracting gloss over the deeper content. Review here. HW
The Inbetweeners Not seen.
The Orator Glorious first feature from Tusi Tamasese. Strong story, excellent acting, and beautiful camera work from Kiwi legend Leon Narbey. The first film to be made entirely in the Samoan language. The second one is going to have a lot to live up to. Full review here. DL
The Smurfs Call us when they make a film of The Wombles.
The Trip A miracle of sorts: an edited down version of a hit comedy TV show which works at least as well as the longer form, small screen original. Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden bravely play versions of themselves, in what amounts to an extended psychological vivisection: as they tour the north of England by road, we see their (fictional, though that's hard to remember) foibles laid bare in hilarious, excruciating detail. Review here. DL
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1 Am I the only New Zealand film reviewer who'll stand up and admit to having enjoyed the Twilight novels? And also the first of the films, though I hated the second and violently loathed the third. (Super-heated language? In the Twilight world, I'm afraid that's just how we talk). I approached the penultimate series entry with caution, aware that if my downwards trajectory continued I was in danger of screaming abuse at the screen, at which point the teenage audience might rise up and rend me limb from limb. I had a great time, which was a relief, but now leaves me forced to explain how I managed to like an anti-abortion parable which is somehow also anti-pregnancy, anti-sex, and yet pro-marriage. Um... I can't. All I can offer is this advisory: adults who haven't read the books are likely to emerge from this film slack-jawed, muttering "Stephanie Meyer, what were you thinking?" But if you're fond of these characters and their world, the news is good. The ponderous emoting of the previous two films has been replaced with smart dialogue, clever editing, and a sophisticated sense of pace. If part 2 had played immediately after the end credits, I'd have stayed in my seat. DL
The Whistleblower A cool, efficient treatment of a female UN peacekeeping officer’s drive to expose sex trafficking in Bosnia – with the twist that the UN forces are just as implicated as the locals. Based on a true story, it has Rachel Weisz playing Nebraskan police officer Kathryn Bolkovac perfectly competently, but by revealing what it’s about from the start, it has nowhere to go in terms of building the suspense and tension that would elevate it into a chilling, high-stakes drama. Nevertheless, the documentary realism in the depiction of the trafficking may be disturbing enough for some. Review here. HW
13 Assassins No one hoping for old-school Samurai action will be disappointed with the second half, in which our thirteen heroes rig an abandoned village as an elaborate death trap and use it to take on an entire army, in a running battle which has to count as one of the great action set pieces of the year. The slow build opening half may be more divisive; we're introduced to the characters at length, and only a few of them are worth the effort. I could also have done without the gruesome attempts to convince me that our swaggering psychopath villain really, really deserves what's coming to him. Take the R18 rating seriously. DL
Tomboy A TARDIS film: much bigger on the inside than its outline would suggest. A preteen girl moves with her family to a new neighbourhood just outside Paris. She's androgynous-looking enough to pass for a boy, and, seemingly on a whim, she does, introducing herself to the local kids as Mickael. The consequences are not disproportionately terrible, but, as played out by an extraordinary cast of child actors, they're complex, believable, and discomforting. DL
When A City Falls Stunning, heart-breaking documentary on the Christchurch earthquakes, filmed on the ground over the course of a long year, by a team of Cantabrians who somehow kept their focus through the quakes, the liquefaction, the deaths. It's been quite a year for New Zealand documentary features (Operation 8, Brother Number One), but in 50 years' time, this is the film they'll still be watching. DL
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Click here for more stories and reviews by David Larsen, here for more stories and reviews by Helene Wong.
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