Readers of last week’s column will know that I am currently overseas on a quest, a mission — a pursuit if you prefer — hoping to discover a new kind of cinema. After a week at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado I am now in New York and have got a clearer idea of what that vision should look like.
I think I’ll name this new cinema good cinema and it’s main characteristic will be the absence of films like Hit and Run and The Watch, two of this week’s new releases. Is it possible to redefine rubbish like this out of existence?
The first is a Dax Shepard vanity project about a man choosing to give up his place in a dull witness protection programme so that his girlfriend (Kristen Bell) can get a job in the big city. In the space of a single day his previous identity as a top getaway driver is revealed to her and his new identity as a dreary small-town non-entity is revealed to the dimwitted but single-minded hoods who he ratted out.
Also in the self-consciously wacky mix is Shepard’s buffoonish US Marshall protector — an entirely laboured performance from Tom Arnold — and a gay highway patrolman played by Jess Rowland. You may not know Shepard’s name but — if you have had the misfortune to watch some of the more tragic Hollywood comedies of recent years as I have (When In Rome, Old Dogs, Baby Mama) his face will ring a bell. How a career filled with cameos has transformed him into a hyphenated auteur is beyond me.
Hit and Run is a pitiable excuse for a film — mean, sweary and desperately unfunny. Somehow Bradley Cooper got involved in this — maybe he and Shepard are mates. Is that how it works?
Also fairly dismal, The Watch is another chapter in Ben Stiller’s ongoing investigation into the parlous state of American masculinity and the results aren’t pretty. Stiller plays Evan, the manager of an Ohio Costco store and good communitarian. When his overnight security guard (Joe Nunez) is brutally murdered, Evan takes the law into his own hands and forms a Neighbourhood Watch group consisting of other comedians coasting on past greatness.
Vince Vaughan, Jonah Hill and Englishman Richard Ayoade (TV’s The IT Crowd) improv relentlessly so that director Akiva Shaffer can have something to cut together later and the discovery that the murder(s) are the result of an impending alien invasion only calls to mind fond memories of the brilliant British Attack the Block.
There’s probably a PhD thesis to be written on Stiller’s presentation of the American male’s fading manhood — his character is even infertile, people, do I need to spell it out? A thesis would probably be funnier than this too.
Femininity is the subject of Hysteria, a new comedy by Tanya Wexler about the invention of the vibrator, and it is so much more satisfying than the sausage-fests above. In Victorian England, women’s emotional troubles were put down to the above-mentioned hysteria and the prescription was to be masturbated in professionally clinical fashion by a doctor (Jonathan Pryce plays the specialist).
When new partner Hugh Dancy arrives to take up some of the slack he soon discovers that relieving the stress of London’s women is a recipe for RSI and his electrical engineer mate (the always eminently watchable Rupert Everett) devises an electrically operated tool for the job.
Not entirely historically accurate — although presumably anatomically accurate — Hysteria also features a romance between the handsome young doctor and his boss’s daughter (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a feisty fighter for the rights of women and the poor.
Hysteria would make a good double-feature with the Meryl Streep comedy about late-life sexuality, Hope Springs. They are both films about something important — and something that usually goes unremarked — but at the same time both are gently humorous and fundamentally inoffensive.
Finally, a word about going to the pictures in New York. It shouldn’t be any great surprise to discover that there is a lot more to choose from here. What did surprise me is that the standard of arthouse cinemas — presentation and facilities — is well below what we are used to in Wellington.
The Film Forum in the Village is a non-profit three screen cinema with long thin auditoria that reminded me of the unlamented Rialto, with similar seating and legroom. The digital restoration of Citizen Kane looked fine though, even though the screen wasn’t all that big. Angelika on Houston St shares a brand with Readings in Wellington and the screens are in the basement, so close to the subway that you can hear the trains rumble along beneath you throughout the movie!
It was Angelika that I saw Melanie Lynskey’s new film, Hello I Must Be Going which is a fantastic showcase for her and a film that NZ audiences would really enjoy. No local distribution yet, though. And it suffered from a pixelated digital presentation that also reminded me of the bad old Rialto days.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 12 September, 2012.