We recap the recent best and rest in film and DVD. In this installment: Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities, Until Proven Innocent, Soul Men, Milk, Vicky Cristina Barcelona (DVD); The Hangover + Festival Repeats (Film).

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Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities (Roadshow, $59.95)
Channel Nine’s much anticipated prequel to last year’s smash Underbelly strikes a similar chord, with heaps of sex and violence, surprisingly slick direction and more than a little dodgy acting along the way.
A Tale Of Two Cities follows the personal life and ever expanding empire of New Zealand drug smuggler Terry ‘Mr Asia’ Clark (played by Matthew Newton) from 1976 to 1987, assisted by ‘Aussie’ Bob Trimbole (Roy Billing) and girlfriend Allison Dine (Anna Hutchison). There are also many sub-plots surrounding corrupt police and underworld bigwigs, and plenty of torture and assassinations in some pretty full-on scenes.
Like its predecessor, there are also excessive amounts of sex scenes. Not a problem in itself perhaps, but most of them involve Clark, and frankly the image of diminutive Matthew Newton as porn star is more than we need to see. Also, the scenes are often drawn out and not particularly relevant to the plot, suggesting a formulaic approach as opposed to confident plot-building.
Newton gives his best Kiwi-by-numbers accent and almost gets away with it, if you can forgive the occasional over-pronunciation. A Tale Of Two Cities is a decent effort, lacking the pizzazz and variety of the original Underbelly, but succeeding in all the right areas and giving the people what they want – a hard-nosed gangster drama with a flimsy thread of historical content presented in a format that is easy to digest.
The second prequel, and third instalment in the Underbelly series, The Golden Mile, is due to air in Australia in early 2010, and will rely on many characters from the previous two programmes. With Aussie icon Vince Colosimo set to star in a main role as Alphonse Gangitano, Channel Nine may well once again be onto a winner. Let’s just hope they keep Matthew Newton fully clothed for this one. New to DVD. —Stuart Lynch

Until Proven Innocent (Roadshow/TVNZ, $29.95)
John Barlow, Scott Watson, Mark Lundy, etc. are overwhelmingly guilty. David Dougherty, however, is innocent. Until Proven Innocent, based on this true story, tracks Dougherty’s wrongful 1993 conviction for abducting and raping an eleven year-old girl and his fight (more than three years) to clear his name. (Dougherty’s $868,000 compensation isn’t mentioned.) Jodie Rimmer and Peter Elliott convince as tenacious journalist Donna Chisholm and Dougherty’s defence lawyer Murray Gibson; Cohen Holloway is terrific as Dougherty. Sunday Theatre at its best, this is palpable, compelling drama. New to DVD.—Alexander Bisley

Soul Men (Roadshow, $29.95)
Soul Men made me a bit sad, thinking about the great, tragically late Bernie Mac, dead last August at 50. Hollywood too often gave the big-hearted stand-up comic below-par material to portray; it’s work like Spike Lee’s The Original Kings of Comedy we’ll remember fondly. In Malcom D Lee’s Soul Men, Mac plays soul man Floyd Henderson. Floyd persuades his grumpy old band bud Louis Hinds (Samuel L Jackson) to reunite to play a tribute concert at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. The duo embark on a lively, very funny roadtrip across America. In refreshing contrast to the sanctimonious, insipid Dreamgirls, Malcolm Undercover Brother Lee’s canny film both celebrates and gently makes fun of soul music. The salty, argumentative duo also meet a ridiculous rapper, Lester the Jester. Since Pulp Fiction Jackson has been Hollywood’s Dr Ice-Cold and Louis doesn’t disappoint. Jackson and Mac share an effortless rapport and charisma, which almost makes it seem churlish to quibble about Soul Men’s flaws. As with Chris Rock’s I Think I Love My Wife, it’s bizarre a film this entertaining goes straight to DVD.—Alexander Bisley

Milk (Universal, $39.95): Sean Penn is inspired as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s elegaic biopic of the intellectually exciting human rights pioneer. Milk genuinely embraced everyone: “Without hope the us’s give up. I know that you can’t live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. And you, and you, and you, and you have got to give them hope.” Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Roadshow, $34.95): A lovely, Almodoverian treat from Woody Allen. A witty, elegant tale of Barcelona summer romance starring beautiful performances from Rebecca Hall, Scar Jo, Penelope Cruz and, particularly, that sensualist Javier Bardem. New to DVD.—Alexander Bisley

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The Hangover (Todd Phillips, 2008)
The Hangover succeeds. And it does so because, very simply, it never sets out to be anything more than it is: an often-absurd, occasionally stylish 90 minute comedy. Todd Philips has proved useful with this genre, improving from Road Trip to Starsky & Hutch and Old School. Now The Hangover sits as his comedic crown jewel.
It’s something that was managed with close to a no-name cast. Bradley Cooper is on his way to becoming a Matthew McConaughey that men will appreciate at least as much as their women do and Ed Helms (Andy Bernard from The Office) and Zach Galifianakis (an embarrassment of riches awaits at FunnyOrDie.com) are talented comedy players. They are not as well know as Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn and Luke Wilson were when Old School was made; this works in The Hangover’s favour because it means audiences are connecting with the film for the jokes and the motivations of the plot that lead to the frequent laughs.
It’s a simple premise, a buck’s night in Las Vegas. With a couple of early, sweeping shots Philips establishes the widescreen soullessness of desert town that never sleeps and often cheats people out of money, time and dignity. And then he allows Galifianakis’ wonderfully unpredictable savant-meets-savage turn as Alan (the brother-in-law-to-be) to meet and mingle with the hen-pecked Stu (Helms) and the laidback/reckless Phil (Cooper). These guys are a believable thrown-together posse. Noone is mugging too heavily to steal the limelight (as would be the case with a Ferrell or Vaughn) and they’re also believable not just in movie-land; this feels like a premise that could actually happen.
From there things get absurd, but they have to. We know from the trailer (and the poster) that the groom goes missing and his mates have to retrace their steps to find him after a wild night out. It would be unrealistic for this to not get unrealistic. By throwing everything at the screen, several people chasing our reluctant and hungover heroes while they’re on the hunt themselves, Philips ensures a laugh every step of the way. He never bothers to have the 20 minutes of sincerity that, ironically, bruise so many modern comedies.
There’s a point near the end of the film where the characters appear to be laughing at what is close to a shark-jump; when asked to explain how something happened we hear “oh, he’s my buddy” and you know what, that’s fine. Because in the scheme of things it has all gotten rather silly by that point but it has been a fun ride.
I have been to this film twice – something that hardly happens these days – and I laughed more the second time. I knew every twist and turn, I was anticipating the jokes; And I enjoyed it more for that matter. This will be a huge hit on DVD and deservedly so because it gives us what a comedy is supposed to: laughs. Comedy tends to work best when it is responding to something satirically or happy being a farce. Those hackneyed will-they/won’t-they scripts when the answer is always of-course-they-will have dominated mainstream Hollywood comedy film making for the last 25 years. This is a comedy film that took the risk of going R-rated and it won. Why? Because it gave people what they want: some laughs. And we need them now more than ever.—Simon Sweetman

Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah, decorated at Cannes last year, arrives as the most enterprising Italian movie in years, defying its industry’s ongoing creative slump, yet is ultimately too formless to justify its Grand Jury accolade. Flatlining the film’s cross-section of mafia-infested Naples is Garrone’s coarse choice of aesthetic, too knockabout and high-strung to reveal its underworld characters in full. Lofty parallels to The Wire are drawn and cast aside, for Gomorrah’s attempt to humanise its ill-fated Neapolitans only ever blurs them into a statistical coda. Also returning to cinemas this September from the New Zealand International Film Festival: dolphin exploitation doco The Cove; Peter Mcleavy portrait The Man in the Hat; The September Issue, a behind-the-scenes look at fashion-bible Vogue; mountaineering thrill-seeker North Face; and Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee’s compelling Booker Prize-winning novel adapted for the screen.—Tim Wong