Now Showing February 23 2012by David Larsen
New in our films-in-theatres round-up: Contraband, Shame, Vincent Wants To Sea.
A Few Best Men As mad, bad and blackly silly as you'd expect from the writer of Death at a Funeral, this transplants a very British rite-of-passage comedy (weak bits and all) to the Blue Mountains and the wedding of Aussie Mia and Pommy David, hapless straight characters entangled in the farcical antics of David's three best men. Bridesmaids it is not (pity), but to varying and sometimes hilarious degrees everyone behaves as badly as expected - although the Aussies, with the exception of Steve Le Marquand's drug dealer, are completely outclassed by the Brits. Full review here. HW
Albert Nobbs Glenn Close’s playing of a woman disguised as a man won’t fool you completely, but you can’t take your eyes off her. And while her shy, naïve butler is the linchpin of this sensitive and unpredictable treatment of class, gender and identity, Janet McTeer, also disguised, gives her a damn good run for her money. HW
Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-Wrecked Computer animation has so much to answer for.
Another Earth One of the delights of last year's film festival, a lovely, strange, tender little movie about … I'd rather not tell you, actually. But the title does count as honest advertising. A second Earth-like planet is discovered in our solar system, and exactly how this tips two lives over into tragedy, and whether they recover, and what the hell is going on with this mix of the macro- and micro-cosmic, you'll have a grand time figuring out. Only playing in Auckland - which is fair enough, because only Auckland's film festival missed out on this last year, when the print arrived in the country late. Run, do not walk, Aucklanders: catch this gem on the big screen while you can. DL
Buck A quiet, sweet film about a quiet, sweet man: a real-life horse whisperer (he consulted for the Robert Redford movie) whose almost telepathic ability to soothe difficult horses we see demonstrated time and again. The sting in the story's tail is the link between his astonishing sensitivity to tiny increments of equine body language and his appalling childhood. DL
Chronicle As elderly as the found-footage device is getting, this iteration feels fresh: you could take it for the work of talented newcomers who've digested the last three decades of genre film and want to make something exciting out of it. You'd be bang on. Three American high schoolers - the popular guy, the clever guy, and the obsessive reject with the home video camera - find a Hole In the Ground, wherein lies Something Not of This World. They acquire superpowers. They have adventures. Popular Guy and Clever Guy start to become aware that Obsessive Reject, who has years of bullying and parental abuse behind him, is not necessarily someone you'd want walking round lose with superhuman abilities. Can they save him from himself, or are they going to have to save everyone else from him? The last act sags a little, and the ingenious efforts to provide a plausible source for every last security camera image, TV report fragment, private video diary segment, etc, eventually become a distraction. Still, this is great fun: energetic and likeable. DL
Contraband Without in any way being an interesting film, this is a fascinating artifact: a big-budget Icelandic thriller (I kid you not), remade in English, with the Icelandic star of the original as director. Mark Wahlberg, whose acting career continues to be a study in unlikely and occasionally fruitful zigzags, plays a retired smuggler and family man, forced by circumstances into pulling one last job. The ways in which it goes horribly wrong are not quite the ways you'd expect, which is not to say the film feels fresh: it feels both overly familiar and entirely bizarre, a case study in the effects of feeding a generic Hollywood plot through the prism of another film making culture and then feeding it back again. Wahlberg makes a solid center, and there's enough energy to the proceedings (just) to sustain the film's length. DL
El Bulli: Cooking In Progress A film about food that won't necessarily get you salivating, but will astonish with the lengths some chefs will go to in pushing the culinary envelope. El Bulli is a Michelin 3-star restaurant on the Costa Brava, famed for its experiments in molecular gastronomy (that's technically food, but not as we know it). Patiently observing the meticulous R&D that goes into the new season's menu, while giving glimpses into the personalities of the chef-researchers, this absorbing documentary is the closest most of us will ever get to the El Bulli experience of culinary alchemy by way of science and art. HW
Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close One of us is a member of the set "has seen this film", and one of us is a member of the set "has free time to write reviews this week". Neither of us is a member of both. Review pending. It is unlikely to feature set theory. Though the film may. I wouldn't know.
Happy Feet 2 Penguins. Dancing. Not seen.
Hugo The film Martin Scorsese was born to make... and it's a family feature about a little lost boy in a train station? That, and so much more. This is a mystery story, and though its 11 Oscar nominations have fueled a king-tide of spoiler-rich commentary even greater than the one already sparked by Scorsese's name, I'm not going to go into plot details here. There's been a great deal of discussion on social media & elsewhere as to whether rave reviews (like my one) have overstated the film's merits; a small but impassioned minority claim it has none to overstate. Go form your own view. Myself, I don't see anything knocking it off my top ten film list for 2012. In fact, out of the 150 to 200 films I'll most likely watch this year, if I see three I love more than this one, I'll be (very pleasantly) surprised. See it in 3D if you possibly can. DL
Jack And Jill We were not offered a chance to see this Adam Sandler comedy before its local opening date, which may or may not have anything to do with its current Rotten Tomatoes aggregate critical score of 3%. Now that it's in theaters, we'll be racing off to see it. You bet. We just love Adam Sandler comedies.
J Edgar Too long, and the aging make-up is applied with an overly enthusiastic hand, but this biopic about the legendary founder of the FBI is far and away the best film Clint Eastwood has directed for years. Leonardo DiCaprio does great work as a man driven by a turbulent mix of ideals and neuroses; Judi Dench is his formidable mother. Full review here. DL
Journey 2: The Mysterious Island Sequel to 2008's Journey to the Center of the Earth. This substantial handicap is not the reason we haven't seen it. We were just busy that day. And every day since.
Killer Elite Robert De Niro kidnapped by Clive Owen! Jason Statham to the rescue! How odd to realise that De Niro's "just add a zero to the cheque" presence is now less of a draw than Owen and Statham's honest action hackery. We have yet to find the time to watch this.
Leonardo Live Leaping onto the HD Live bandwagon for the first time, London’s National Gallery takes us on a tour of its exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, filming on opening night and offering a rare opportunity to get up close with the works. Gathered from a variety of international sources, there are ten in all, some with linked histories, some with accompanying sketches. They are, however, outnumbered by the commentators – historians, curators, and artists – interviewed in pedestrian fashion by the two hosts. One or two seem astonished to have been asked, and have little useful to say. More useful are the interleaved chapters backgrounding da Vinci’s life and time in Milan, giving insights into the paintings and the man. So far, so documentary. Missing is a sense of occasion and excitement to what The Telegraph is rashly trumpeting as “the greatest exhibition of the century”. And it was opening night! I wasn’t expecting Russian Ark, but the filmic treatment is disappointingly dull. And when all’s said and done, though it’s nice to be given the opportunity to “see” the work from so far away, painting doesn’t really lend itself to this concept in the same way as theatre and opera. No amount of high definition can convey what these breathtaking works must be like in the flesh. HW
Melancholia Lars Von Trier knows how to get under your skin. Depression is the real subject of this astonishing tour de force; the ostensible subject is the end of the world, so it's possible to get distracted. Kirsten Dunst has never given a better performance, and she's also never been better cast. The Wagner excerpt that keeps looping back at us, over and over, is simultaneously maddening and gorgeous: and it's meant to be: and there you have the film. Full 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
Moneyball Even if you’re not a fan of sports movies, let alone of baseball, I can’t recommend this highly enough. It seems like a standard underdog story to start with, but when you see what the team’s manager (played by Brad Pitt) and his Yale grad recruit (Jonah Hill) do to get out from under, it reaches deep into ideas about personal potential that speak to us all: the undervaluing of individuals, and the randomness of subjective judgement. Inspired by a true story that’s been adapted into a sharply-honed script by the definitely not undervalued Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, it’s engrossing, insightful and graced with excellent performances all round. Full review here. HW
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
Romantics Anonymous Chocolate and anxiety. Really? Yes, but not in the sense of dietary guilt. Chocolatiers Angélique and Jean-René both suffer from the disorder. Hers is shyness and lack of self-belief; his is fear, especially of women. So when Jean-René hires Angélique to work in his shop, you know they’ll end up together, but the path is, naturally, a rocky road, strewn with smilingly comic encounters and misunderstandings. Lovely casting of the leads, more than a touch of Amélie quirkiness, and an almost storybook look to its Lyon setting. Soft-centred, but not gooey. HW
Safe House Ryan Reynolds, you are hereby forgiven for Green Lantern. Denzel Washington is the real draw in this tense, involving action thriller, ice cool as the CIA traitor Reynolds's young rookie has to bring in, but Reynolds holds his own. Director Daniel Espinosa (who he?) takes his time putting all his pieces in place, and the visual style is initially oppresive. (Lots of fast-panning low-rez close-ups, for that you-are-there, don't-throw-up feel). But the pay-off is considerable. The surprisingly dark story kept going places I didn't expect - literally as well as figuratively; the main setting, which I won't name because I had so much fun trying to place it, is non-American and non-European, and the unfamiliarity does a lot to keep things fresh - and the camera work, once you adjust to it, is immersive and visceral. (The film shares its cinematographer & editor with the Bourne series). There's a rare sense, as artificial and generic as the basic shape of the story is, that actual adult men are facing actual adult choices. With Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson, whose good instincts for picking their projects did not desert them here. DL
Shame Experimental film maker Steve McQueen's second theatrical feature is also his second collaboration with Michael Fassbender, which is the main reason, and quite reason enough, to watch it. Fassbender plays a familiar enough type in this pop-Freudian age, the sexual compulsive incapable of accepting a true emotional connection. (And yes, the pop-Freudian locution was chosen with his upcoming performance as Jung in mind, opposite Viggo Mortensen's Freud in Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method). (I'm so excited!) The film tells us far less about its characters than they know about themselves, an approach which needs better writing married to it than McQueen and screenplay collaborator Abi Morgan are able to supply - but Fassbender is a compelling presence, and the cinematography remakes New York. Full review here. Crackly and in places inaudible podcast of me discussing Fassbender with our arts editor, Guy Somerset, here. (Very much a trial podcast, offered in the spirit of "we'll get better at this"). DL
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows An honest sequel: if you enjoyed the first one, rock on up for more of the same. Not everyone did enjoy the original, but as far as I'm concerned these films are the most (the only) entertaining thing Guy Ritchie's ever done. It remains the case that the BBC Sherlock series puts this version of the characters deep in the shade. DL
Sione's Wedding 2: Unfinished Business It's nice to see the boys back. They might not have matured as characters (the "unfinished business"), but they have as actors, and it shows in the occasional flashes of comic chemistry. But it's hit-and-miss humour, with overstuffed shtick taking precedence over story (flat and wobbly) and character journeys that drift, neglected, into simplistic resolutions. Never mind; diehard fans will stay loyal. Full review here. HW
Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace 3D Yeah, thanks, Mr Lucas. Pass.
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn Steven Spielberg and producer Sir Peter Jackson bring out the best in each other, a cast of fine voice actors do excellent work, and the wizards of Weta do their best motion-caption animation yet. Tintin purists will carp, but this is outstanding summer fun, and worth catching in 3D if you can. DL
The Artist Silent, black and white film about a silent film star. The film industry's touching tribute to itself? No: this is slight, but its charm is real, its technology-driven unemployment storyline has obvious contemporary resonance, and it pulls off several coup de cinema moments that will stay with me a long time. Features yet another in the recent long line of bravura performances by dogs. Full review here. DL
The Descendants I would like to pretend I'm astonished and horrified that this cute little exercise in fishing the shallows while dressed for big game has emerged as a strong contender for Best Picture. That's to say, I would like to pretend that the Oscars don't routinely reward trivial emotional stuntsmanship, because I enjoy betting on them, and I like the frocks. But back in the world we actually inhabit - the world of harsh truths and difficult confessions, the world this George Clooney vehicle purports to be about - I am forced to admit that my frustration and occasional boredom did not completely stop me enjoying yet another round of "Clooney plays Mr Flawed Nice Guy". His Hawaiian man of business, clearly a terrible husband and father, has to man up and help his daughters face their mother's imminent death. Oh dear: it comes out that she was cheating on him. Does George search his soul? Goodness no. But we're meant to feel sorry for him, and assume meaningful growth is taking place. What - as either of the daughters might put it - ever. DL
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Not a story I hold dear, and it's already been filmed well once. On the other hand - David Fincher. This English-language version of the Swedish bestseller is just too cool for school: nearly three hours long, and I loved every minute of it. Full review here. DL
The Ides of March Treachery in high places, as the title implies. The place is Ohio, on the Democratic campaign trail to the White House. George Clooney plays Mike Morris, a state governor fighting for the nomination. Ryan Gosling is Stephen, his communications whizzkid and a believer in his boss’s liberal idealism. That belief, as you might guess, is tested, and no one gets out unscathed. But if you’re hoping for something Shakespearean – again as the title implies – this falls short. It’s a thin, timid and almost naïve treatment of the kind of behaviour in politics we’ve become depressingly familiar with. Yes, of course we know that jaded cynicism awaits everyone who works in politics, and that you can expect to get shafted or have to shaft someone else. So? If you want to make a movie about it now, you need to be bolder and edgier with the characters and the themes, rather than simply settling for, “This is how it is.” HW
The Iron Lady Meryl Streep is Margaret Thatcher, but no matter your view of Britain’s former PM, this tremulous, unfocused biopic is less than she deserves. People will no doubt project their own Thatchers onto Streep’s predictably excellent performance; they’ll have to, because what director Phyllida Lloyd and writer Abi Morgan think of their polarising subject never quite emerges. DL
The Muppets I admit I'm no longer the target audience, so best to stop reading if you wish to preserve your rosy-hued memories. It's not that the movie's intentions are misplaced or misjudged, for its storyline of "let's put on a show to save the Muppet studio (and revive the franchise to hook in a new generation)" is entirely admirable. As is the production and performances. It's just that for old buggers like me, there's little besides a few potent stabs of nostalgia and some mildly referential humour to make it worth the trip. So, best seen with an accompanying ankle-biter. Still, a shout-out to Bret McKenzie for his nomination for Best Original Song, even though Oscar chose - of course - the serious one ("Man or Muppet") over the catchier "Life's a Happy Song". Full review here. HW
The Vow Looks to be a tear-jerker romance. (Couple's perfect marriage derailed by amnesia on her part; he sets out to woo her back). We've not seen. So it would be prejudicial and unfair to link to a quirky picture-blog review which rips it to shreds.
This Means War An eyebrow-raisingly improbable plot, but gosh, it’s fun to watch. Mainly because it zooms through the what-the? moments and has actors smart enough to make it work. Plus they’re pretty darn attractive. Reese Witherspoon’s legs go all the way up to her shoulders, and the wardrobe department have knocked themselves out showcasing them with a different outfit for every scene. Tom Hardy, who’s everywhere at the moment, is not only hot; he has a comic funnybone, an understated British one. Chris Pine? Hmm. Nice eyes. As for comedienne Chelsea Handler, she rocks her dialogue and almost upstages everyone else. That plot? Two CIA agents, brothers-in-arms, fall for the same girl. There’s also a bad guy called Heinrich who pops in every now and then to remind them they have jobs, but essentially it’s a buddy movie fuelled by starpower and some pretty funny spy vs. spy gags. Oh, did I mention Tom Hardy’s hot? HW
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Just as in John Le Carré's novel, you're expected to hold far too many characters and subplots in your head at once, but rarely has so much confusion been so absorbing. It's due to an extraordinarily deft adaptation by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan, cutting and telescoping where they should while leaving plenty of room for the equally extraordinary actors to fill in the gaps, not with dialogue, but with looks and actions. Captures the gloomy, chilly sterility of its environment, but at the same time manages to hint at the human emotions struggling to survive beneath the façade. HW
Vincent Wants To Sea Tourette's syndrome comedy-drama about a trio of variously compulsive characters who break out of a treatment center on a mission of mercy. German; and I admit Germany's is not a culture my possibly blinkered mind associates with great humour. But in fact, the last German comedy I saw was touching, unexpected, a rich experience in all sorts of ways. Alas, this one is a stereotype reinforcer. It manages to feel both formulaic and lost in translation; an achievement, when you think about it. DL
War Horse Steven Spielberg can still frame an impressive set piece, but this episodic meander through the First World War is boring, lifeless, and all in all as poor a film as he's made since (though not, I hasten to add, as poor as) Hook. (I do not believe Spielberg has another Hook in him, though that may just be desperate denial on my part). It's intended as a family-friendly war film, which may not be an inherently perverse notion, but in Spielberg's hands means, "Oh, are millions being slaughtered? Quick, look this way, kiddies - there's a horse in danger!" DL
Weekend There are a handful of moments in this beautifully well observed ships-passing-in-the-night love story when the hand of artifice weighs heavy on your shoulder. Most of them involve Glen, the pushy, artsy bundle of attitude whom our morose young viewpoint character, Russell, finds in his bed one morning after going out clubbing. Glen has a lot to say on a lot of subjects, one of them being the difficulty of accepting yourself as a gay man when you never glimpse anything that looks like your own life on film or TV. If most straights saw a gay sex scene they wouldn't know where to look! They never get the chance to start finding it natural! The "just in case you didn't get what we're doing here" signposting mostly serves to underline how relaxed, easy and rich with subtext the rest of the film is: in contrast to most of the young couples we see on the screen, Glen and Russell feel more like real people the more time we spend with them. We had to wait years for a sequel to the somewhat similar Before Sunrise. Part of me wants more Glen and Russell right now. But on the other hand, their story's nearly perfect as it is. 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. 2011 was 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. Full review here. 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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