Wednesday, 30 September 2009

The Wrestler: DVD Review

The Wrestler: DVD Review

The Wrestler
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood
Rating: M
Released by Roadshow Entertainment

At a time when the fighting world is all about the comeback of David Tua (link to sports), it's no wonder everyone's got return to form in mind when they talk about Mickey Rourke in the Wrestler.
He stars as fading 80s wrestler, Randy "The Ram" Robinson who believes in making every fight real (even going as far as to cut himself to shed blood in the ring).
However, in the aftermath of a fight, The Ram collapses and ends up in hospital, with a stark warning to make some changes - or face life alone and headed for the grave.
So The Ram tries to make amends with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) whom he abandoned during the excessive days of his fighting career - and even tries to convince ageing stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) to try and make a go of a relationship.
But can The Ram change who - and what - he is before it's too late?
It's trite to say that this is Mickey Rourke's finest performance; the depth and aching emotional rawness he brings to the role shows why he was always the first choice.
And in director Darren Aronofsky's film, it's not as if Rourke is painted in a brilliant light - with his long blonde trestles and bloated puffer fish face, he doesn't exactly look like a star.
However, it's Rourke's performance which anchors the film as Aronofsky examines a life gone wrong and the implications of wrong decisions during a lifetime.
Granted you know the Ram isn't exactly heading for an easy path of redemption - and much like Rourke himself, there are a lot of parallels between the actor and character.
Extras are a bit lacking for the film with a behind the scenes doco and an interview with Rourke himself - but quite frankly, after you sit through this film, you may find it difficult to fight back the tears as it knocks you to the ground and subdues you as it delivers the killer emotional punch.

Rating: 8/10

State of Play: DVD Review

State of Play: DVD Review

State of Play
Cast: Russell Crowe, Rachel McAdams, Ben Affleck, Helen Mirren, Jeff Daniels
Rating: M
Released by Universal Home Video

Taking the stunning BBC series of the same name, State of Play headed to the cinemas with the weight of expectation.
As far as I was concerned, John Simm's Cal McAffrey was the definitive version - and no acting by Russell Crowe could convince me otherwise.
Well, I was kind of wrong.
Crowe plays the grizzled jaded newspaper journalist who ends up investigating the death of a research assistant of friend and Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck).
But as he digs deeper, he discovers a conspiracy which has implications beyond what he imagined.
State of Play is not as good as the TV series - it was never going to be as the film's 2 hours long in comparison to the longer running time of the series which was a slow burner character piece.
However, that said this version is equally as compelling, complex, intelligent and thrilling. Crowe's part as the journalist is perfect for him - it really shows him acting his chops off - but Crowe's also smart enough to realize he's part of a great ensemble cast.
And what a cast - from Rachel McAdams' young blogger journalist to Helen Mirren's gruff newspaper editor, no one of them puts a foot wrong.
The end result is that the film is deeply compelling and immediately engrossing. The only disappointment is the relative lack of extras - deleted scenes and the making of State of Play fills out the disc- it would have been nice to have seen a bit more.
The original source material's been topically updated to include Iraq, wars between newspapers and their online departments - it's all quite a stunning mix.
It's good to see Hollywood's still keen to put out films like this - intelligent clever, gripping film-making and suspenseful.
State of Play drags you in straight away and doesn't let go until nearly two hours later.

Rating: 8/10

Dr Who: Delta And The Bannermen: DVD Review

Dr Who: Delta And The Bannermen: DVD Review

Dr Who: Delta and The Bannermen
Cast: Sylvester McCoy, Bonnie Langford, Ken Dodd, Don Henderson
Rating: PG
Released by BBC/ Roadshow Entertainment

Another release from the Sylvester McCoy years, this three part adventure from 1987 sees the 7th Doctor back in 1959 South Wales - and ensconced in battle at a holiday camp - Hi De Who anyone?
When an alien princess heads to the Shangri La holiday camp, the erstwhile Doc and his companion Mel (Bonnie Langford) find themselves caught in a showdown which will decide the fate of an entire civilization.
1980s Doctor Who wasn't always at its finest - even the most ardent of fans can acknowledge that - but this 3 parter sees a fair amount of gung ho action and double crossing to show that its intentions were admirable.
McCoy gives it his all and it's a shame the show will be forever remembered for its terrible shonky effects rather than the subtle layered underperformance of McCoy himself - and it's amusing to see Ken Dodd in a cameo role as a tollmaster.
The package is once again rounded off by a good solid bunch of extras - with no major making of doco appearing on the set, it's left to a series of rushes from the scene and interviews taken at the time to cover how the story came to be; there's a commentary from the director and script editor at the time - as well as McCoy himself.
However, the best part of this set is the latest in the Stripped For Action series which covers the comic appearances of the Doctor throughout the ages - this one's focused on the Seventh Doctor's years which ran when the show went off the air and is a fascinating look at how the show endured its years in the wilderness.
While Delta and The Bannermen may not be the best story to remaster and release, a healthy set of extras means the fans have something to get their teeth into - that is until the forthcoming release in October of the seminal classic from the sixties, The War Games.

Rating: 6/10

Robot Chicken: Star Wars Episode II: DVD Review

Robot Chicken: Star Wars Episode II: DVD Review

Robot Chicken Star Wars Episode II
Cast: Erm, The Star Wars cast of toys- voices by Seth Green, Seth MacFarlane, Breckin Meyer, Carrie Fisher - a cast of hundreds
Rating: PG
Released by Madman

Given the way the Star Wars films were written, there was always room for parody.
And perhaps the fact the characters were so memorable there was always room to take liberties with how they behave.
So it is with Robot Chicken Star Wars Episode II - hot on the heels of the very funny first episode, this latest special sees the characters back in for more comedy skits and more insane silliness than you can shake a stick at.
Loosely speaking, it's a series of sketches thrown together in no particular order - so you need to have a bit of knowledge of the Star Wars universe.
Because that way you can truly appreciate what's on offer - the brief sketches hit the same kind of marks they did in the first episode - you get an ongoing rivalry with The Emperor and Darth Vader, Gary The stormtrooper finding it difficult to take his daughter to the office in Take Your Daughter to work day&.there's all kinds of madness on show here.
And you can't help but wonder why some of this hasn't been plumbed before - Leia mocking Luke for seeing Ben die when she's lost an entire planet, the music from the Cantina being used for an ad - and perhaps best of all, the stuffy opening of Star Wars credits being turned into text talk&.
Given the rapid fire nature of the sketches, it's no wonder the original episode only ran to 22 minutes - this latest one has a wealth of extras to make the purchase all the more worthwhile.
With an extended broadcast version, the original version and a making of just being a few of the goodies on offer, there's nearly 2 hours worth of stuff to make up for the brevity of the actual episode.
But perhaps the best extra is the ability to get commentary on selected scenes via a device known as the Chicken Nugget - basically when prompted, the episode switches to an invision commentary which sees the creators explain their reasons for the sketch, what they were thinking - it's quite a nifty device and one which gives a bit of an insight into the lunacy.
There's been two episodes of this so far - and I can't for one moment imagine they've run out of ideas - if you fancy a bit of insane escapism and inspired lunacy, then Robot Chicken: Star Wars Episode 2 is the best solution for these rainy days.

Rating: 8/10

Last Chance Harvey: DVD Review

Last Chance Harvey: DVD Review

Last Chance Harvey
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Richard Schiff
Rating PG
Warner Bros Home Video
Lonely divorcee has chance meeting with permanent singleton.
Against the odds, the pair form a friendship and it evolves to a relationship - but the pair are from other sides of the world - how can their budding romance survive such insurmountable obstacles?
Granted, it's not the most original idea ever, but Last Chance Harvey just about manages to pull it off - even if it does dip into heavy schmaltz towards the end.
Dustin Hoffman is Harvey Shine, a NY based jingle writer, who is on his last chance with his employers.
With a big deal about to break, Shine has to head to England to see his estranged daughter marry.
Emma Thompson is Kate Walker, a customer services rep for an airline. Forever on blind dates and apparently consigned to spinsterhood, she's beset by a meddling mum whose husband ran off to France with a younger woman. Shine and Walker meet as he disembarks the plane - and he refuses to answer her questions.
Later, after being leaving his daughter's wedding early (that's how close ole Harvey is to the family), he bumps into Kate again.
And in a moment of self loathing and realizing he's lost everything, he starts to talk to her - and the two of them realize last chances should be seized - before it's too late.
What is there to say about Last Chance Harvey?
If you're prone to sentimental films and well up with emotion as the human condition is examined, then this flick is for you.
But it's a couple of very good turns by Hoffman and Thompson which raise this out of the mire of treacly schmaltz.
Just.

Hoffman's good as the world weary Shine - despondent after being rejected by a personal and professional world, he conveys just the right amount of sass and sadness to make his character likeable.
And Thompson puts in an admirable performance as the spinster who's always on blind dates or being set up by her mother - her breakdown towards the end of the film is deeply plausible as she faces the very real possibility of being alone for the rest of her life.
The only cloying part of this film is a sub plot involving Kate's mother and her new Polish neighbour - which exploits every possible racial stereotype concerning foreigners and has an extremely predictable outcome.

Rating: 6/10

Entourage: Series 5: DVD Review

Entourage: Series 5: DVD Review

Entourage Season 5
Cast: Kevin Connolly, Kevin Dillon, Adrian Grenier, Jerry Ferrara, Jeremy Piven
Rating: M
Warner Bros Home Video

At the end of Season Four (currently airing on TV2 on Thursday nights - find out more here!), things looked a bit rough for the gang.
(Consider this your spoiler warning if you're about to catch up E, Vincent Chase et al on TV)
With all of them facing a lot of fall out from the Medellin saga (Chase's film about drugs baron Pablo Escobar), it looked as if it couldn't be anything but the bad times for the Entourage gang.
But, don't forget Hollywood loves a comeback.
And not only is Entourage Season 5 a comeback for Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) on screen, it's also a comeback for the series which, to be honest, was starting to hit a bit of a lull.
The problem with a show like this is somewhere down the line you reach the point where you feel there's nowhere for the writers to go as the gang hits a high, followed by a low, followed by an upturn - and every Hollywood excess has been mined for comedy gold.
However, there's no need to worry because this season is one of the best - with Chase having to claw his way back up the power lists, there's actually an emphasis on getting the guy to act - granted there are still the distracting subplots of Drama (Chase's brother, played by Kevin Dillon) who's forever determined to muck up his own career; and Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) who's still in search of some kind of career rather than just being part of the Vinny Chase Entourage.
It's divided into two parts - the first is about Vince's comeback as a movie star and the second half sees him on a film which could either seal his comeback - or his fate.
But it's once again Kevin Connolly and Jeremy Piven who steal the series - Connolly's E is trying to make his way in the showbiz world (this season he's looking after some new writers played by Giovanni Ribisi and Lukas Haas) - and his nice guy approach is a direct contrast to the continuing foul mouth hard ass agent Ari Gold - played as ever by the brilliant Piven.
Piven is clearly the star of the show - from his insane behaviour and feud with a fellow agent in Season 5, the writers clearly have a ball with Gold - but thanks to Piven and an inherently decent streak underneath the foul mouth, Gold is pulled from the brink of stereotype and manages to pretty much steal every scene he's in. Piven relishes the role and brings so much gusto and spark to it.
This season doesn't skimp on getting the Hollywood high and mighty involved in some form of cameo - but the best appearance has to be Eric Roberts who takes the boys out to the desert and gives them magic mushrooms to help Vince make a career decision.
Brilliant.
Extras: While the show itself is great and you get the entire 12 episodes of Series Five, unfortunately the extras are somewhat lacking - a couple of commentaries and a behind the scenes piece. Those are ok but for a show this good, you'd hope for a little more.

Rating 8/10

Zack and Miri Make A Porno: DVD Review

Zack and Miri Make A Porno: DVD Review

Zack and Miri Make A Porno

Starring:
Seth Rogen, Elizabeth Banks, Jason Mewes, Traci Lords
Rating: M
Roadshow Entertainment

Cult director Kevin Smith makes a smutty return to the screen with Zack and Miri Make A Porno, a tender love story with some porn thrown in for good measure.
Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks are Zack and Miriam, a pair of roommates who've been friends for years but who are struggling to make ends meet and find themselves upto their necks in debt.
On the eve of their high school reunion, the pair find their water cut off - and after a conversation with some former classmates, they hit on the idea of making adult films to get some quick and easy cash.
Unsurprisingly though they start to realize they have feelings for each other and a spot of the green eyed monster begins to rear its ugly head during the filming of some of their spoof movies.
Smith's put together a good cast (although Rogen is playing yet another variant of those loser roles he excels so much at) but it just doesn't work as well as it could have done.

Granted, Craig Robinson (warehouse boss Darrell from the US version of The Office) is perhaps one of the best things in the whole film - he steals every scene he's in.

And there are some pretty funny laugh out loud moments scattered throughout - though honestly, that's because of a lot of fairly gross humour.

Smith carries on his Star Wars obsession - Zack and Miri's first attempt is Star Whores, complete with the characters Darth Vibrator, Hung solo et al - although rumour has it that version already exists.

The problem with ZAMMAP is that it veers so violently into stereotypical rom-com schmaltz at the end that you actually end up feeling cheated out of the film's original premise. It's a shame because the whole relationship between Zack and Miri is sweet and well played with a tenderness about it.

Elizabeth Banks starts off being a likeable character but ends up being annoying as she falls into moping for Zack mode - Rogen's Zack is, as mentioned earlier, a variant on all the roles he plays - although he does have some comic moments (sadly a lot of that is due mainly to crudity), they are few and far between.

There are funny one liners (which won't work by my quoting them out of context) and various pop culture moments - the team discuss what's actually going on on TV2's Lost while Zack and Miri have sex - but overall, Zack and Miri Make A Porno is lacking the money shot.
Extras include the now obligatory Deleted scenes.
Disappointing from someone as great as director Kevin Smith.
Rating: 5/10


Thursday, 24 September 2009

Disgrace: Movie Review

Disgrace: Movie Review

Disgrace
Rating: 6/10
Cast: John Malkovich, Jessica Haines, Eriq Ebouaney
Director: Steve Jacobs
Based on the novel by author JM Coetzee, Disgrace tells the story of professor David Lurie (Malkovich) who leaves the Cape Town university where he lectures after an affair with a student.
While the enquiry into his conduct takes place, he heads to his daughter Lucy's (Haines) farm on the Eastern Cape.
She lives there alone - apart from her partnership with Petrus (Ebouaney) - and appears to be finding her way in the world.
Slowly David begins to find his place with his daughter and her way of life - after initial contempt - but after a shocking attack on the farm, the father and daughter are left to pick up the pieces - and find their lives will never be the same again.
Disgrace is not an easy watch - Malkovich doesn't make his character of Lurie likeable or sympathetic. When first we meet him, he is a creepy, desperate sounding man who wants a connection with someone, anyone - be it a prostitute or student, Lurie is a man who is contemptuous of life and others and who's flagrantly abusing his position of power.
So it's no wonder he's scornful of the rural idyllic lifestyle of the farm and the relationship between Lucy and Petrus as it feels like a direct contrast to the life he had at the university.
But around 45 minutes into the film, that is thrown completely on its head with the attack - which sees a father confront his worst fears and being unable to protect his daughter.
And it's also at this point that the audience may find it a little difficult (read: harrowing) to carry on viewing as Disgrace gets more intense the longer it goes on.
Malkovich is stoic as Lurie - I never really had the feeling he's a character for which I should root for and even towards the end of the film, his actions don't leave me feeling that he was redeemed - or that he even truly sought redemption in any shape or form..
Perhaps this is the power of the screenplay - and of Malkovich the actor - because it's a morally ambiguous and deeply complex film which denies its lead a fully redemptive arc, something which is normally frowned on upon the big screen.
Jessica Haines is immensely compelling as his daughter Lucy - faced with a spiralling situation which escalates ever further into heartbreaking territory, her virtual underplaying of the role guarantees her strength and the ongoing sympathy of the audience.
Disgrace is a tricky, tough challenging watch - it may alienate some and deeply upset others - but it poses a series of terrible situations and then gives its characters room to breathe in an horrific reality.

However, thanks to the performance of the central two actors, you'll leave the cinema with plenty to discuss.

G Force: Movie Review

G Force: Movie Review

Rating: 4/10
Cast: Zach Galifianakis, Kelli Garner, Will Arnett - and the voices of Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, Jon Favreau, Penélope Cruz, Steve Buscemi, Tracy Morgan

Director: Hoyt H. Yeatman Jr.
The latest 3D escapade comes to us in the form of G Force, a Disney comedy about a bunch of secret test FBI guinea pigs (who are actually guinea pigs - that's the joke I think) who are trying to infiltrate the world of Leonard Saber (Bill Nighy)
Saber's the head of a household appliances chain and the team believes he's about to take over the world with his automated machinery.
However, just after busting into Saber's mansion, the G Force team of Darwin, Juarez and Blaster (aided by Speckles The Mole) is shut down and disbanded by the head of the FBI.
To make matters worse, the team's inadvertently trapped in a pet store - and up for sale.
Can they rise to the challenge ahead of them with the deadline for Saber's takeover looming and escape their predicament, break out from the pet shop and save the world?
G Force has an awesome cast in terms of vocal talent (Sam Rockwell and an unrecognisable Nicolas Cage) as well as the ever amusing Zach Galifianakis and Will Arnett - but it just failed to meet the mark as far as I was concerned.
The problem is the plot - it's not that it's nonsensical (it's a film, it's not based on credibility) but coupled with characters who just aren't interesting enough, it fails to keep the attention for long enough.
The humans in the piece (with perhaps the exception of Garner and Galifianakis who make an amiable couple) are on screen to merely act improbably and foolishly - at times, Nighy scowls and barks his lines like someone who's just phoned in their role.
Darwin the head of the unit (voiced by Rockwell) is saddled with a boofhead potential brother (voiced by Jon Favreau) at the pet store who is just simply there to provide pratfalls and laughter.
As it's executive producer is Jerry Bruckheimer, you won't be surprised to learn there's plenty of eye popping action - and once again, the 3D factor is well used. Although in some places (such as flying through the skies) it's used to lazy effect - which is unfortunate because elsewhere it adds a depth to the action which is visually impressive.
Unusually for a comedy, despite the screening I was in being packed with children, I don't recall hearing any of them laugh out loud at any point during the film.

G-Force will amuse the younger children in the audience but the adults may find it a little hard to take.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Aliens In The Attic: Movie Review

Aliens In The Attic: Movie Review

Rating: (See below)
Cast: Carter Jenkins, Ashley Tisdale, Robert Hoffman, Kevin Nealon, Doris Roberts
Director: John Schultz
Ah, the school holidays must be nearly upon us.
What with Up, animated rodent comedy G Force, fable The Secret of Moonacre all on the screens now or in the next week or so, it's clear there's a major fight on for the family dollar during the two week hols.
Aliens In the Attic is the latest contender for the cash.
The film revolves around the Pearson family who head to their vacation home to try and get everyone back on the straight and narrow.
Teen Tom Pearson (Jenkins) is flunking school, sis Bethany Pearson (Tisdale) is besotted with her seemingly perfect boyf Ricky (Hoffman) and there's plenty of sibling rivalry - both between the young kids and the Pearson dad (Nealon) and his brother (Andy Richter).
So when the kids find a group of unfriendly aliens lurking in the attic and plotting the downfall of planet Earth, they're pitched headlong into a battle to save the world - and avoid getting in trouble the parents.
What can you say about Aliens In The Attic?
The aliens themselves are reminiscent of the malevolent Gremlins and crossed with frogs; their one weapon against the planet involves the taking over of older humans (youngsters are immune to their electronic ways) via a dart which renders them in the thrall of the aliens - via a remote control.
And as far as the kids are concerned, this is where most of the laughs come from. At the expense of Bethany's boyf Ricky who is just being set up for a series of falls - and from Nana, who when overtaken turns into some kind of Matrix style ninja grandma.
However, it's a family film so in the true spirit of how it was intended, I took a batch of kids along to gauge their reaction.
Both nine year old Patrick and ten year old Jackson were to be found laughing throughout the film - Patrick's favourite bit was when Ricky busts a series of dance moves as he's controlled by Bethany's use of the alien controller; Jackson's best bit of the film involved the fight between ninja kicking Nana and robotic Ricky when they have their Bruce Lee/Matrix like smackdown.
15-year-old Connor found it a little clichéd for his tastes - so I think on reflection, the film is pitched at the younger audience; it's inoffensive comedy which has a fair idea of which bits the audience will like the most (hint- it's the remote controlling of the adults) and exploits them for all they're worth.
There's a smattering of smarter moments throughout - one involving a youngster having to use one of the old style telephones elicits much mirth; and there are some messages about enjoying family time and bonding.

But as I say, it's not upto me to judge the latest cinematic outing aimed at the family - here's a summary of the kid judges' marks : Patrick - 7/10; Jackson - 6/10 and Connor 5/10.

Moon: Movie Review

Moon: Movie Review

Rating: 8/10
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey and erm, Sam Rockwell
Director: Duncan Jones

These are good times for sci fi.
After the stunning District 9 and with James Cameron's Avatar  on the horizon, Moon is the latest brilliant addition to the intelligent sci-fi genre.
Sam Rockwell stars as Sam Bell, an employee contracted for three years by a mining company to work on the surface of the moon to help extract helium-3 which is to be used on earth as a power source.
As the end of his stretch nears, Bell suffers an accident on the lunar surface and wakes up back inside the base, convinced he is not alone...
There's much to love about Moon - from the retro stylings of the moonbase (its sheer whites recall 2001: A Space Odyssey - as does Kevin Spacey's voicing of the robot GERTY, whose monotone talk and displays emoticons on its screen are reminiscent of HAL) -to the wonderful performance of Sam Rockwell as a disaffected Bell.
But in terms of themes, Moon is more than just scifi.
It has universal themes such as isolation, what it is to be human and how we need other people to survive - the initial opening is all about the character study and how one survives alone and millions of miles away from others before it changes into something even smarter and more existential.
Rockwell continues to grow his portfolio as one of the best actors around - his multiple character emotions are brought excellently to the fore by director Jones. It's his performance which literally pivots the film - and which is so compelling, you can't take your eyes off the screen for one moment.
It's difficult to discuss too much about Moon without giving away its major plot points - and if I did that, I'd be depriving you of the pleasure I felt as the story unspooled in front of me on the big screen.
For a film which was made for $12 million NZ, this is leagues ahead of anything; in terms of look and feel, it really does capture the essence of life on another planet - and how dull it could be at times; it also uses the less is more approach as we follow Bell and gives you meaty ideas to mull over hours after you've left the cinema.
To simply define Moon as sci fi is to do it a disservice - to consider it more as a study of the human condition and of the big questions in life is more appropriate.

If you like intelligent films and ones which leave slivers of themselves inside your brain for days after you've seen them, Moon is the perfect film for you - it's intelligent, caring and human - and it's not often you get to say that about sci-fi these days.

Funny People: Movie Review

Funny People: Movie Review

Rating: 7/10
Cast: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman
Director: Judd Apatow
Where do you go after the general raunch of The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up?
For wunderkind director Judd Apatow, there was always going to come a time when he needed to break out from the (admittedly very funny) genre he'd placed himself in.
And Funny People is that film.
Adam Sandler stars as comedian George Simmons, who has made his name from a series of lowbrow comedies and stand up (sounds familiar doesn't it?)
But despite the fame and fortune, he's not a happy man - and is alienated from his family and lacking friends.
One day, out of the blue, he's told by doctors that he has a rare form of leukaemia - and on learning this, he falls into a depression.
Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) is a budding stand up comedian who wants to quit his day job working at a deli and hit the big time on the comedy scene.
Ira and George's paths cross at the comedy club - and Ira's quickly hired by George to help him write some material (although it's clearly a screen for getting someone into his life that he can share his depression with)
As Ira begins working for George, it becomes clear that Simmons has a lifetime of regret to deal with - from family rifts to his aching loss of what he believes to be his one true love - Laura (Leslie Mann)
And when doctors tell him he may have beaten the illness, Simmons realises he has a second chance - so what will he do with it?
Let's get this out of the way right now - Funny People is a film of two halves and at nearly 145 minutes, it is a little too long and meandering in its second half.
However, it's also incredibly impressive in places - and that's mainly due to Adam Sandler (and to a lesser extent Seth Rogen)
Both these actors manage to shake off their perceived personas - but Sandler in a relatively straight role also mocks his own on screen personality - the films Simmons has chosen to do are exactly the kind of films Sandler's made his career from.
But Funny People is a career defining role for Sandler - at times, as we see him do stand up, sing songs and generally act, it appears it's Apatow's showcase for Sandler. While he's happy to mock his slacker image, it does show why when pushed he has what it takes.
Rogen finally begins to shake the lovable schlub image he's had over the past few films and puts a bit of warmth and personality into it.
Granted, we've seen the tears of a clown done before - but never with this level of crudity in there - yep, once again thanks to the patented Apatow formula, there are some very funny laugh out loud moments - and some crude humour in there.
But after about 60 minutes in, Funny People switches and becomes a completely different film - it veers from comedy to relationship drama; and while the tonal shift is an uneasy one, it manages to work well for a while as you feel the film's become a lot more personal - however, you do start to wonder if Apatow had either a punchline or end in sight. Sadly it leaves you thinking it's an odd mix and does feel like two films were sandwiched together.

That said, there's plenty to love about Funny People - a star turn from Adam Sandler (although he did do straight well in Punch Drunk Love), some very funny moments courtesy of a great supporting cast, great stand up, star cameos - it's just unfortunate that Apatow didn't exercise a bit more restraint towards the end.

Protege: Movie Review

Protege: Movie Review

Rating: 6/10
Cast: Daniel Wu, Andy Lau, Louis Koo, Anita Yuen, Zhang Jingchu

Director: Derek Yee
Playing as part of the first ever Hong Kong Film Festival in Auckland, Protégé is the tale of undercover officer Nick - played by Daniel Wu.
Nick has spent the last seven years working undercover, trying to crack the drugs supply line which has slowly been ravaging his city.
Working for the kingpin, Quin (Andy Lau) Nick has worked his way to the top from the very bottom - and is poised to take over the empire.
But at the pivotal point where the end is in sight, Nick ends up involved with his heroin addled neighbour Jane (Zhang Jingchu) - and desperate to try and save her and her young child from the clutches of the drug, he teeters precariously between the police officer he's supposed to be and the life he's led for the past seven years.
Protégé is an at times, gripping look at the lengths undercover officers go to and how their day to day lives with the criminal underworld causes the lines to blur and judgments to become impaired as they walk a fine line between right and wrong.
Wu does excellently at conveying this dilemma as he tries to do the right thing by his neighbour - and as he battles with wanting to see what effect the drug would have on himself, the feeling of self loathing and loss over his identity sets up a good conflict.
Unfortunately, director (and writer) Derek Yee (who directed Shinjuku Incident with Jackie Chan earlier this year) manages to muddy the waters a bit with some heavy handed direction - at each moment of real conflict and emotional turbulence, we cut to scenes of rolling storm clouds - a stock tactic which is too oft employed during the film's duration.
Protégé works best when it concentrates simply on the drama - the scenes between Quin and Nick are tense as Quin's distrust and uncertainty starts to breakthrough - particularly in one scene set in the heroin plantations of the Golden Triangle.
It's when the direction and script are pared back to their most simplistic that they are the most effective.
However, it's Jane who humanises the whole piece. Played by Zhang Jingchu, her descent as a junkie is nothing short of horrifying - a reminder of the reality of the worlds skated between by Nick - and as he desperately tries to save her, it becomes clear there are very real human costs involved in this ongoing war.

Protégé is an intriguing film - it's a gritty portrait of moral conflict and harrowing in places; as a character study of conflict with a social message, it does manage to feel slightly overlong in places, but there's plenty here to immerse yourself in.

Also playing at the Hong Kong Film Festival are: The Way We Are, True Women For Sale, The Beast Stalker, and The Three Kingdoms: Resurrection Of The Dragon - full details of times can be found on the official Hong Kong Film Festival website.

Monday, 14 September 2009

The Simpsons Season 12: DVD Review

The Simpsons Season 12: DVD Review

Simpsons Season 12
Cast: Erm, Homer, Maggie, Bart, Lisa, Marge, the cast of Springfield
Rating: M
Roadshow Entertainment

What can you say about the Simpsons?
It's been going for 2 decades now - and many feel the episodes starting to hit a bit of a creative rot somewhere around Season 6.
But these semi regular complete season releases are far from rot.
Lavishly put together, this latest release with Comic Book Guy glaring from the cover, sees the Springfield gang for yet another year's worth of gags, stupidity and general mirth.
The Twelfth Season has packed in 21 episodes - all of which have commentary on them (a rare feat for a season release - after all it's a lot of viewing at 22 minutes a time) which renders each episode a multi layered gem - not only do you get to see the Simpsons in action, the insights give you a chance to enjoy the episode again.
This year sees some classic moments - such as HOMR, wherein the lovable dolt Homer finds out the cause of his stupidity over the years has been due to a crayon lodged in his brain. He consequently has it removed and bonds with his daughter Lisa but starts to doubt his own happiness - truly Homer's never been doused in so much pathos.
Then at the other end of the spectrum, Homer ends up dishing celebrity gossip on his computer while masquerading as Mr X - only once he realizes his exposes have only gone so deep, he begins to make it up (a cautionary tale to all who use the web methinks)
Trilogy of Error sees the Simpsons approach one day from 3 different perspectives; dolphins take over the world in Treehouse of Horror XI, Comic Book guy suffers a heart attack in Worst Episode Ever; the creativeness of the writers is endless in Season 12.
But if the episodes never quite reach the pinnacle of a gag a minute, then the same can't be said of The Simpsons The Twelfth Season set itself.
Gorgeously packaged in the style of a comic book, this set oozes quality for fans of the genre - from the opening animated menus which see the characters waiting to get autographs at a convention run by Comic Book Guy (hence why he's on the cover), it's clear those behind the release have pulled out all the stops for the fans once again.
The wealth of extras guarantees something for every fan of America's favourite family - for fans of the animation, you get behind the scenes access to the drawings which form the episodes, the opportunity to see sketch galleries and how they translated to the screen; it's truly a collector's dream.
Perhaps the nicest extra is the Global Fanfest which sees the writers quizzed on their own show (they don't get everything right) and you can also watch a live orchestra playing the music of certain scenes from the show.
It's the plethora of extras which make this set essential for the true dyed in the wool Simpsons fan - while the family can enjoy the 21 episodes, the true fanatic can delve into a world beyond the TV show and once again revel in the creativity and depth of extras that the Simpsons has to offer.
The only minor gripe is the inner packaging makes it difficult to get the DVDs out without destroying the spines of the beautiful folds - but it's a fan complaint more than anything.
Just make sure you have plenty of time to spare - because you'll be immersed in this set before you realize where the time has gone.
Extras (Too many to list here) - includes Special introduction from Matt Groening, Commentaries on every Episode with actors, writers and directors, Deleted scenes, The commercials, Original sketches, and Comic Book Guy - Best. Moments.Ever

Rating: 9/10

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Appaloosa: DVD Review

Appaloosa: DVD Review

Appaloosa
Cast: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, Lance Henriksen
Rating: M
Released by Roadshow Entertainment

Based on a book by crime writer Robert B Parker, comes Ed Harris' second directorial effort.
Appaloosa is set in the small western town of the same name, where Bragg (Jeremy Irons) is terrorizing the town having dispatched the local sheriff and his deputies.
One day, a pair of peacekeepers known as Hitch and Cole (Mortensen and Harris) ride into town and promise to restore law and order to Appaloosa and track down the killer in return for complete control.
After an initial confrontation, both Hitch and Cole find themselves tested by Bragg's men - and Cole in particular is tested (in a good way) by the arrival of Allie French (Renee Zellweger) with whom he begins a relationship.
However, after getting Bragg tried and convicted, things don't run quite as smoothly for the trio as perhaps they should - and it seems as if Bragg's influence hasn't been shaken as easily as they had expected.
Appaloosa is an odd sort of film - it takes a while to ease into its groove and some may find it a bit slow to get going. It's not your usual Western as well - there's a lot more character driven material than you'd expect and quite a quirky interplay between Cole and Hitch which errs into deadpan comedy at times.
But it's the relationships which keep this story going - and stop you from losing interest - if it's an old school western you're after with guns and shootings and stand offs, then there's a few here - and yet, the stand offs, while tense, end pretty quickly and brutally (the deaths of the sheriff at the start is over as quickly as it takes Bragg the time to draw his gun).
Cole and Hitch's relationship in particular is based on a long standing acquaintance and is at times reminiscent of the kind of banter and reactions you'd expect from a cop film - or a buddy movie.
There's some nice touches here and there which are scattered through the film (the bad guy's arrested coming out of a toilet) but overall, Appaloosa ever so slightly disappoints as its never really hits a high - it's got a good solid performance from its ensemble cast (particularly Lance Henriksen) but unfortunately it never helps it into the classic western category - rather more the curio category.
A smattering of extras include a commentary by Ed Harris, some additional scenes, and a quartet of featurettes.
Rating: 6/10


Thursday, 10 September 2009

Is Anybody There? Movie Review

Is Anybody There? Movie Review

Rating 6/10
Cast: Michael Caine, Bill Milner, Anne-Marie Duff, David Morrissey
Director: John Crowley
1980s England - and in the stifling atmosphere of an old people's home, we find death and dementia not too far away.
10-year-old Edward (Bill Milner) lives in the care home run by his parents - but to get by on a daily basis, Edward has a morbid fascination with death (perhaps inevitably given where he lives 24-7)
Obsessed by the final moments of some of the residents, Edward spends his time recording their last dying breaths in an attempt to find out what comes after.
One day, while out walking and listening to the exit of an elderly resident on a pair of headphones, he's nearly run over by Michael Caine's ancient magician Clarence.
After this initially frosty meeting Clarence checks into the rest home - and after Clarence succumbs to his suicidal thoughts, Edward is drawn to him as he realizes that he is the only person to have experienced near death - and he could hold the answers to many of the questions Edward's been after.
An uneasy friendship grows and the pair both learn to rage against the dying of the light.
Is Anybody There? is a tear-jerker in parts - but it avoids you rushing for the tissues because of the towering performance of Michael Caine.
Once again, Caine manages to turn what could have been a fairly mawkish script into some truly emotive moments - there's pathos in spades here as Clarence first visits the home; he's shocked to realize that he will ultimately end up here but too weary to fight against the inevitability of his condition.
In any other actor's hands these moments could have been trite and overplayed for tears - but Caine makes Clarence relatable as he begins to wallow in a sea of regret and cantankerousness as he begins his descent down into senility and the grave.
Bill Milner's Edward isn't a bad performance - while his morbid fascination and depressing endless questioning is a product of where he's been brought up, the sense of playfulness and earnest desire to learn about the afterlife and find some meaning in the world make the character rise above what could have been a tearful, doleful mire.
The only unwelcome note in Is Anybody There? is the family marriage melodrama which blights the final portion of the film - it's an unnecessary footnote to what's gone before and seems an unwelcome bookend to the drama (although it's almost forgiven because there's a nice pay off right to the central story at the end.)

Is Anybody There? may be predictable in parts but it's the pivotal performance of Michael Caine and a vein of black humour throughout as both Clarence and Edward tackle the reality of old age and regret which make it just rise above what could nearly have dragged it down.

The September Issue: Movie review

The September Issue: Movie review

The September Issue
Rating: 6/10
Cast: Anna Wintour, Grace Coddington, Sienna Miller
Director: R J Cutler

Vogue's September issue of 2007 was, as editor Anna Wintour proclaimed, the biggest ever. Over 13 million copies of the two kilogram tome were sold.

The September Issue chronicles the intensive process of putting the fashion bible together. But much more pertinently, it offers exclusive access into the hallowed halls of Vogue - the very offices notoriously fictionalised in The Devil Wears Prada in 2006.

You won't see traces of Meryl Streep's defiant Miranda Priestly here. Vogue's infamous editor, Anna Wintour, is a whippet of a thing. She observes those around her behind thick curtains of hair and only her sharp eyes and sly grin belie her incisive intelligence. She approaches her work clinically, culling collections and dismissing models in typically decisive style.

Faced with Wintour's reserve, director R.J Cutler frequently turns to Wintour's colleague, creative director Grace Coddington, to reveal Wintour's character. Coddington has by her own admission earned her place at Vogue and isn't concerned with venting her frequent frustrations. It's Grace who we empathise with when her meticulously planned shoots are dismissed with the wave of a carefully manicured hand.

Grace is the exception to the Vogue rule. Wintour surrounds herself with those who will not test her resolve, who respect the power she wields. It's easy to forget that the journalists and stylists at Vogue are at the top of their field, such is their desperation to appease her. As Grace deftly observes of a male colleague, "He won't say what he thinks in case he gets it wrong."

This is however a rare moment of cynicism. The September Issue is an 88-minute slice of Vogue life, from the often comical fashion shoots, to cover-shoot wrangling and the editing process.

Those expecting a real life The Devil Wears Prada may be disappointed as Wintour has no intention of allowing Cutler to create an expose of Vogue. Instead, she offers a peek into her world without revealing anything of herself - no surprise given she is the matriarch in a world concerned with facades.

Up: Movie Review

Up: Movie Review

Rating: 7/10
Voice Cast: Edward Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, Bob Peterson, Delroy Lindo, Jerome Ranft, John Ratzenberger
Director: Pete Docter
A Pixar film is always a joy to behold.
You know that animators have spent hours poring over every frame, ensuring every pixel is in place and every moment is perfectly crafted.
But with the level of excellence continuing to rise each time, it's inevitable somewhere that one film will fail to meet the mark.
That's not 100% the case with Up - but the problem with Pixar films, is you inevitably hold them to account with their predecessors.
And in this case, it was the fabulous combo that was Presto, the short tale about a magician's rabbit - and Wall-E, the robot.
Up is the tale of Carl Fredericksen, who, in the twilight years of his life, after realizing he never followed his (and his wife Ellie's dream) of taking a trip to Paradise Falls in South America, decides to do something about it.
So with the bulldozers literally knocking at his door to make way for a development, Carl unveils a roof full of balloons and heads for the skies as he relocates for good.
The trouble is, just prior to his leaving, Carl was visited by Wilderness Explorer, Russell, who's trying to earn his final badge - for helping the elderly - and who was near the house when it took to the skies.
With his unwanted companion, Carl and Russell head off for adventure - even if Carl doesn't want it.
Along the way, the duo cross paths with disgraced explorer Charles Muntz, who's trying to prove he's not a liar to the exploring world by trapping a rare bird and taking it back to civilization.
Will Carl sacrifice his dream to get involved in Russell's new quest?
Up is quite an adult tale - it's a yarn about accepting what's in your backyard and living life to the full; it has a winsome quality and has some truly touching moments.
The first sequence which fully illustrates Carl's life with Ellie before the present day is just beautiful, emotionally stunning. Quite how a 3 minute sequence of animation can reduce this reviewer to near tears is a testament to the human touch these computer animators haven't lost.
But I didn't feel the resolute joy with the rest of Up that I have done with similar Pixar releases - whether it's because this story didn't resonate with me, I don't know exactly how to pinpoint what it was- certainly there's no qualms about the animation and inventiveness on screen.
That said, I do love the fact that Carl loses his purpose in his life after the loss of Ellie - a rare quality for an animated film to portray - and by relocating and following what were his family's dreams, he rediscovers who exactly he is.
Up may not appeal across the spectrum too - it's very wordy at the start (so much so, one poor little darling in the screening shouted "Boring") and there's very little real action until the final 30 minutes of the film - but it's the closest Pixar have ever really gotten to reality - and for that it deserves to be treasured.

However, for every moment of minor misses, there are 1001 visually stunning moments on Up - and at the end of the day, when you're watching animation on the bigscreen, sometimes it's more than enough to simply look up and be impressed.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Due South: Season 3: DVD Review

Due South: Season 3: DVD Review

Due South Series 3
Starring: Paul Gross, Callum Keith Rennie, David Marciano, Leslie Nielsen, Gordon Pinsent
Rating: M
Released by Madman Entertainment.
Cult shows from my youth don't come finer than this - or is it just nostalgia?
Back in the mid 90s, I remember stumbling across Due South, the comedy crime drama series which saw a Canadian Mountie Benton Fraser (Paul Gross) head across the border to Chicago to track his father's killer.
Paired with a cynical cop Ray Vecchio (David Marciano), Fraser, along with his deaf wolf Diefenbaker and dead father who haunted him from the next world, had a series of adventures and cracked crime on the way.
It was quirky, offbeat and centred around the good nature of the Canadian Mountie who used his manners (oft found saying Thank You Kindly) to appeal to the better nature of the crims involved.
Due South Volume 3 collects together the final 26 episodes of the show's last two seasons which brought the curtain down on the gang.
But the last season was a tumultuous one - dumped from US TV because it bombed in the ratings, this Canadian dramedy (created by Paul Haggis who wrote Crash and Million Dollar Baby) did phenomenally well abroad and that saw it commissioned for a final run by a multi national conglomerate of partners (including the BBC).
In its final year, the original Ray Vecchio went undercover, leaving Fraser with a new partner Stanley Kowalski (Callum Keith Rennie, recently seen in Battlestar Galactica and Case 39 on the big screen) who had to adapt to Fraser's way of working.
The joke with Due South has always been a sly nod and wink to the ongoing relationship between the Canadians and the Americans - with the USA seeing them as being a bit slow and Canada exploiting this to their own ends.
Those quirks continue in Series 3 - and finally wraps up some of the long running plot threads - including the riddle of the murder of Fraser's mother.
It's fair to say the cracks were starting to show in the production of the show's final year - and while the partnership between Kowalski and Fraser works well, it never really transcends the tenderness between Vecchio and Fraser which gave the series so much of its appeal. However, that said, it still remains a rare show in that it has family values (which are never preached) and can be watched by all.
The 7 disc set itself is a bit of a mixed bag - it would have been great to have some form of extras or perhaps a doco which show why Due South is so loved nearly 10 years after its release - instead, there's nothing but the bumper 26 episodes (along with Leslie Nielsen's flatulent Mountie Buck Frobisher).
And while that's great, it's just a shame the show which is ardently cared for by fans who view it isn't given the send off that it deserves.
Still, it is great to be able to have the final set released after a long, long wait.
To Madman, I say: Thank you, kindly.

Rating: 7/10

The Soloist: Movie Review

The Soloist: Movie Review

Rating: 6/10
Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Jamie Foxx, Catherine Keener, Tom Hollander
Director: Joe Wright
Robert Downey Jr plays LA Times columnist Steve Lopez in this true life story about Nathaniel Ayers (played by Jamie Foxx), a musical prodigy whose life didn't go the way he was expecting.
Ayers was on course to make a splash in the music world and was studying at the prestigious Julliard school of music when he developed schizophrenia and ended up homeless on the streets of downtown LA.
Lopez was the journalist who, amid the possibility of cuts on the LA Times and reporter lay offs, ended up finding Ayers (after looking for a story) and forming a friendship with him.
The Soloist is their story - and details the highs and lows of living with mental illness.
Both Downey Jr and Foxx are pretty damn good in their respective roles - Downey Jr continues to cement his reputation as a comeback king with this role which is imbued with humanity and warmth; Foxx manages to expertly convey the reality of living with the condition of paranoid schizophrenia - but it's director Joe Wright who somehow manages to fudge this film and stops it from soaring (even though it does feel at times like a showreel for the 2010 Oscars)
Whereas there are subtle moments which show the toll an illness takes on those around them, there are some moments where it feels like Wright's direction is beating you over the head with a hammer to make a point.
At one key juncture, Ayers is shown to be consumed by his music and transported by his passion (he views Beethoven's music as a series of coloured dots dancing on the black screen) - these are the moments which make you appreciate what Ayers' character is truly like- as opposed to a scene where Ayers is playing cello and a pair of birds soar through the sky and swoop back and forth amongst the cityscapes.
It's at times like that that Joe Wright manages to plumb the stereotypes and drag the overall film down.
It's a very human approach to schizophrenia and manages to work because it doesn't show Lopez having all the answers (and even struggling to realize what exactly he's got himself into)- in fact one of the key moments sees a social worker telling Downey Jr's character that Ayers doesn't need curing or help, he simply needs a friend.
Lopez is an odd character - he simply befriends Ayers to start off with because it makes good copy and sells papers as well as filling column inches - and at times, he manages to come across as naïve as he suggests Ayers needs medicating.
On reflection though, it occurs to me that Lopez's reactions are those of every human being who's a little uneducated to what they've witnessed.
Foxx is heartbreaking to watch as the demons start to set in while at college - these scenes are effective as the whispering voices nag at him and start to overwhelm him.
Even in his moments of clarity, Ayers is still dangerously close to the edge - and Foxx manages to convey it in a haunting and affecting way.

It's thanks to the virtuoso performances of the two lead actors that this film manages to succeed - but it's sadly due to the director that it doesn't soar as much as perhaps it should.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

The Young Victoria: Movie Review

The Young Victoria: Movie Review

Rating: 8/10 for females... 6/10 for males
Cast: Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend, Paul Bettany, Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Produced by Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, and Academy Award winners Martin Scorsese and Graham King, The Young Victoria is something I've waited a long time for - a decent costume drama.
And one without Ms Knightley in it to boot!
The Young Victoria , much like the title suggests, tells the story of Queen Victoria's ascension to the throne, her shaky first steps as Britain's monarch, and the courtship that eventually led to one of the most famous romances of all time.
Queen Victoria (Emily Blunt) is a headstrong young woman wary of being manipulated, who is unsure who to trust in the first years of her rule.
When her cousin, Prince Albert (Rupert Friend), counsels her to learn to play the political game better than those who seek to use her, the audience gets its first hint that this gentle, logical man may be the perfect match for the feisty queen.
But standing in his way is Victoria's heavy reliance on the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), for guidance.
Blunt's nuanced portrayal of Victoria manages to balance great strength of character with an underlying vulnerability, giving the queen an accessibility that immediately endears her to the audience.
Friend also impresses with his inherently likeable interpretation of Albert. He has the audience in the palm of his hand from the moment he advises Victoria to "...find [a man] to play [the political game] with you, not for you."
Even though this story's outcome is pre-determined, The Young Victoria is no dry dusty plod through the history books. There is plenty of humour and joie de vivre, as well as a surprising amount of suspense.
It's at this point that I have to admit to being genuinely worried that Victoria wouldn't end up with Albert, even though my general knowledge was telling me otherwise...
But please don't think this is just another sweeping romantic saga in fancy dress, although the costumes are exquisite.
The real focus is on Victoria's coming of age, and her struggle to find the best way to serve her people and her country. And since Fergie is a producer, I can't help but believe that this movie is fairly accurate in its depiction of the behind-the-scenes politics faced by the British Monarchy.
Also adding to the film's royal connections is a rather unusual extra - Princess Beatrice, who has a 'blink and you'll miss it' non-speaking role as one of Queen Victoria's ladies-in-waiting.

So what are you waiting for?

The Young Victoria is hugely enjoyable, visually opulent, and has a fabulously talented cast who are a delight to watch.