Now Showing February 9 2012by David Larsen
Our movie review round-up returns from vacation, with assessments of every film in theatres, from A Few Best Men to Young Adult, with a lot of Oscar contenders in between.
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
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
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.
Julia's Eyes Strongly Hitchcock-inflected Spanish suspense thriller. I was not thrilled, because the suspense felt overly contrived: you can feel the directorial hand shunting your emotional response about the chess board. But it's well shot and well enough acted (Belen Rueda, the lead in The Orphanage, one of my very favourite horror films, stars) - and the story, featuring a woman who's slowly losing her sight and therefore can't be sure there isn't someone lurking in the shadows, watching her (though we, annoyingly, can) does have some inherent power. DL
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
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol There are going to be jokes about Pixar's Brad Bird choosing a Tom Cruise vehicle for his first live-action movie. ("At least Mr Incredible wasn't a cartoon character"). But they'll be toothless jokes, because Cruise and Bird are so well matched: this is one cracker of an action joy-ride. It's fundamental to the DNA of the series that the set pieces are the movie - we're here to see ridiculous challenge meet absurdly complex solution, or it would, as Anthony Hopkins commented in the second film, be Mission: Difficult - and Bird choreographs them beautifully, combining clean, easy-to-follow editing with lots of wit and visual energy, without ever losing sight of the story he's meant to be telling. And do you remember how striking the absolute silence of the hanging-from-the-ceiling-over-touch-sensitive-floor scene in Brian De Palma's original film seemed at the time? Quite possibly not, because by now you've seen it at least once on TV, and on the small screen, without an audience around you, that scene simply doesn't work. This film, likewise, has been designed with big screen spectacle in mind: however often you've seen bits of the tower climbing sequence in the trailer, it will still make you gape. Curious, with all the head-scratching that goes on over movie piracy, how few directors think to make a film which simply has to be seen in theatres. Make the most of it. DL
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
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
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
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.
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 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 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 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 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.
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
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
We Bought A Zoo If you took the hard-headed efficiency of Soderbergh's Contagion and fused it with the soft-headed warmth of this "inspired by real events" tale, you'd have one decent film. Matt Damon does, after all, lose his wife and go slightly crazy in both of them. But let me come clean: even though I have no counter to the obvious criticisms of this film, which start with the observation that it desperately, desperately needed a more cynical and hard-bitten director than Cameron Crowe, I still liked it. Because, damn it, I just like Damon. As the title suggests, he moves with his kids to a nearly defunct zoo, and sets out to save it. Never, for one second, do you doubt that he'll succeed, which represents abject failure on Crowe's part. But not on Damon's. Who would have predicted that he'd end up such an interesting actor? He makes this mush entirely enjoyable. Switch off your brain and go with it. DL
Weekend The best-reviewed film currently around that neither of us has yet managed to see. Let us know what you think if you've seen it.
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
Young Adult If Diablo Cody's Juno was 16 going on 30-something, her Mavis Gary is the exact opposite. Writer Cody and director Jason Reitman have teamed up again around yet another unsettling female character, played this time by Charlize Theron. A successful ghost writer of young adult fiction, Mavis is living the dream, at least in the eyes of those she left behind in small-town Minnesota. But happiness eludes her, so one day she up sticks for home to win back her high school sweetheart, happily married with a new baby. As you do. Yes, she's deluded; yes, she gets her comeuppance; and yes, there is a slightly meandering, unfocused quality to the storytelling. But Theron's low-key, brittle performance suits the film's sad but truthful commentary on adolescence arrested, and what it takes to finally grow up. And I predict we'll see more of Patton Oswalt, who plays the podgy, geeky guy who helps make it happen. HW
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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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