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Genius film­maker Mike Leigh has been on a bit of an up and down streak in recent years. 2002’s All or Nothing was won­der­ful, Vera Drake (2004) I found frus­trat­ingly unwatch­able and, most recently, Happy-Go-Lucky seemed too thin – beneath his sig­ni­fic­ant tal­ents – and yet, des­pite not lik­ing it very much, I find myself think­ing about Happy-Go-Lucky quite often. And that’s Leigh’s skill – he gets under your skin even when you resist.

Another Year is his latest film and it’s ter­ribly good. It’s Secrets and Lies good, that good, des­pite hav­ing no plot to speak of. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen (Leigh reg­u­lars) play Tom and Gerri, a hap­pily mar­ried couple who seem to be sur­roun­ded by people who simply aren’t as good at cop­ing with life – Lesley Manville’s Mary, a highly strung, alco­hol­ic, work col­league of Sheen’s who turns up to embar­rass her­self in their kit­chen peri­od­ic­ally; Tom’s old uni­ver­sity buddy Ken played by Peter Wight (over­weight, depressed, lonely, also alco­hol­ic); Tom’s tacit­urn wid­ower broth­er Ronnie (David Bradley). They all drift into and out of Tom and Gerri’s wel­com­ing sub­urb­an kit­chen while tea is made and drunk and banal­it­ies are spoken.

Perhaps that’s Leigh’s enquiry now – what makes happy people happy when oth­ers around them are so … not. “Life isn’t always kind, is it?” says Sheen’s char­ac­ter at one point and that’s about the only object­ive judge­ment you’ll find. But the film is beau­ti­fully subtle through­out – it’s one of Leigh’s that I’m glad will be stuck in my head for a while.

I’ve been a bit tough on Kristin Scott Thomas in these pages over the last few years – her out­put has been con­sid­er­able if not often suc­cess­ful – but Sarah’s Key is well worth your time. Ms. Scott Thomas plays Julia, a journ­al­ist in Paris on the trail of one of the great tra­gedies of the French col­lab­or­a­tion with the Nazis. In 1942 14,000 Parisian jews were roun­ded up by French author­it­ies and shipped off to the exterm­in­a­tion camps without a German officer in sight. Julia dis­cov­ers that her husband’s fam­ily apart­ment had ori­gin­ally been con­fis­cated from one of those fam­il­ies and decides to dig deeper.

The story she dis­cov­ers is engross­ing, only occa­sion­ally tip­toe­ing into melo­drama. The dir­ec­tion (by Gilles Paquet-Brenner) is assured and the final scene – fea­tur­ing lovely work from Aidan Quinn as well as Scott Thomas – is a worthy pay­off to what has come before. I had to sit in the theatre and pro­cess for a while after Sarah’s Key and usu­ally I can’t wait to leave.

If that’s all too much emo­tion for you there are oth­er options. English comedi­an and philo­soph­er Russell Brand’s star has ris­en high enough now that he now has his own star­ring vehicle: a remake of Arthur, the Dudley Moore com­edy from the 80s. There are three things that the Arthur trail­er doesn’t men­tion and two of them are import­ant: Greta Gerwig, Nick Nolte and Arthur’s drinking.

Gerwig is a delight­ful rev­el­a­tion. Plucked from some very low budget indies – where she man­aged to light up the screen des­pite the grunge around her – she’s some­thing apart from the usu­al Hollywood ingenues (the anti-Heigl if you were). As Arthur’s down-to-earth love interest she is provides an excel­lent foil to Brand’s antics – which in turn reveal more of his con­sid­er­able intel­li­gence than pre­vi­ous per­form­ances have allowed. As you’d expect Helen Mirren is excel­lent too (which sort of goes without saying).

Talking of la Heigl, I fully expect she’s warm­ing up for a US ver­sion of Pascal Chaumeil’s high concept rom-com Heartbreaker. Romain Duris is a pro­fes­sion­al breaker-upper, giv­en the job of sep­ar­at­ing beau­ti­ful Vanessa Paradis (Mrs Johnny Depp in real life) from her English fiancée by her dis­ap­prov­ing fath­er. This would nor­mally involve woo­ing her without sedu­cing her (M. Duris has prin­ciples you see) but things don’t go accord­ing to plan. Me, I tried to keep inter­ested (and awake) by pluck­ing the hair out of my nose. It works, you should try it.

On my hero­ic third attempt I finally man­aged to watch Mars Needs Moms in 3D – prob­ably already depart­ing theatres by the time you read this. Reputedly the biggest flop Disney has ever pro­duced, MNM has the core of a cute idea (based on a children’s book by car­toon­ist Berkeley Breathed) but it’s the look of the thing that is turn­ing people off I think.

The per­form­ance cap­ture approach to anim­a­tion (pion­eered by pro­du­cer Robert Zemeckis on The Polar Express) simply isn’t as good as the artis­ans pro­duce in films like Rango and Toy Story – in fact it often looks plain creepy. We’ll see later in the year wheth­er the Jackson/Spielberg Tintin can over­come this fairly sig­ni­fic­ant obstacle.

Finally, you really must find a way to see the new doc­u­ment­ary Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us? Evidently honey bee colon­ies around the world are in steep decline and they pol­lin­ate 40% of what we eat. We are in deep trouble – one expert in the film rates the prob­lem as more imme­di­ately threat­en­ing than glob­al warm­ing. Pondering all this new know­ledge after­wards I found myself think­ing that per­haps Sir Ed Hillary’s last­ing con­tri­bu­tion to soci­ety might have been his bee­keep­ing rather than his mountaineering.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 27 April, 2011.

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: I had to watch five films last week­end before a single frame of cel­lu­loid passed before my eyes – and I saw that it was good. Arthur was a col­our­ful and vivid D‑Cinema present­a­tion at the new Roxy Cinema (#2 in fact), Mars Needs Moms was in 3D at Readings, Fast 5 (to be reviewed next week) looked great in Readings 4 (D‑Cinema again). You could even see that the cinematographer/colourist had allowed for some film grain (or a digit­al approx­im­a­tion) and again the col­ours were sen­sa­tion­al. Then I got to see Mozart’s Sister (again next week) in the Paramount Brooks theatre – high-definition E‑Cinema so not as rich and not enough con­trast but ser­vice­able. Sarah’s Key the next day was anoth­er high defin­i­tion E‑Cinema screen­ing, this time at the Lighthouse. Not per­fect – it looked like there might have been inter­la­cing arti­facts but I’m not enough of an expert to really tell.

Then we got to the 35mm and stand­ards dropped imme­di­ately. Another Year was in Lighthouse 2 and the xen­on was flick­er­ing badly. The print itself looked like it had been around the block a few times too. Heartbreaker was in Lighthouse 1 and was pass­able but had no zing.

I have to say that I’m going to start choos­ing the DCI com­pli­ant D‑Cinema at Readings, Empire, Roxy, Embassy and Lighthouse 1 (when the dis­trib­ut­ors can sup­ply the right format) over 35mm every time from now on. More on this in anoth­er column.


  • mafalda says:

    @Another Year Exactly! I loved it because of the same reas­ons I loved Secrets and Lies. How Mike Leigh is able to make so (appar­ently) subtle and unpre­ten­tious films but that impact you so much?

  • dfmamea says:

    @Another Year: yep. enjoyed that. not as much as Vera Drake, but.

    @Sarah’s Key: i’ve had a crush on Ms Scott Thomas for the longest time so count me in.

    @Arthur: i have fond memor­ies of the ori­gin­al. how could they go wrong?

    @Mars Needs Moms: is it just me but isn’t the title a bit creepy/sleazy. (alright already: it’s me.)

    @Queen of the Sun: what with The Lovely Wife a newly authen­tic­ated bee­hive inspect­or, we’re sure to see this one.

  • Andy says:

    Look for­ward to read­ing more of your take on Digital film Dan, you obvi­ously being a fan of it. Me, I prefer the olé 35mm – per­haps it’s the romantic in me that appre­ci­ates the phys­ic­al­ity of it, that the print of a film can tell as much of a story as the film itself. And if all cinemas become Digital Cinemas, how­ever will we see clas­sics (much as the Embassy has been doing, and I see the Paramount is mak­ing a go of) back on the big screen? Will stu­di­os, dis­trib­ut­ors et al really both­er mak­ing their entire back cata­logue avail­able on Digital?

    • Dan says:

      A quick reply (and then a more thought­ful one tomor­row per­haps): dis­tribs will go where there is a quid and if people are going to “clas­sics” then a way will be found to serve them. The restored Taxi Driver played digit­ally at Cannes last year. There’s no tech­nic­al reas­on why it can­’t play the Embassy now.

      And the 35mm clas­sics have been fun but those prints (exc for Badlands) were pretty poor. Ghostbusters for example soun­ded horrible.