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.