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Beginners posterI really don’t want much. It’s simple. All I ask is for someone with tal­ent to take some of their life exper­i­ence and merge it with that tal­ent in the hope that the res­ult­ing work of art might help illu­min­ate some aspect of my life. That’s all. And yet it rarely hap­pens. Which means I’m very grate­ful that with Beginners, Mike Mills has done exactly that and pro­duced a ter­rif­ic film that is intensely per­son­al – both to him and to me.

Ewan McGregor plays a gloomy Los Angelean illus­trat­or: lone­some, intro­spect­ive, self-sabotaging; all les­sons learnt grow­ing up an only child in a house­hold where his fath­er was a closeted gay and his moth­er lived a con­strained and lonely life of ima­gin­a­tion. When she dies of can­cer, McGregor’s fath­er (Christopher Plummer) is freed from the bonds of mar­riage, comes out at the age of 75 and throws him­self whole-heartedly into the the LA gay scene – includ­ing post­ing reveal­ing per­son­al ads and start­ing a rela­tion­ship with a bud­ding pyro­tech­ni­cian named Andy (Goran Visnjic). And then he gets cancer.

McGregor, mean­while, is telling this story in flash­back, sev­er­al months after his father’s death, at the same time as he’s wrest­ling with a poten­tially per­fect new rela­tion­ship with a beau­ti­ful French act­ress (Mélanie Laurent) and work­ing out if he can avoid wreck­ing it like he did the others.

That’s rather more plot than I nor­mallly worry about reveal­ing here but it’s not a plot-ty film, though, it’s a char­ac­ter study and the two guys are as coher­ent, believ­able and well-rounded as any­body writ­ten in recent cinema. Laurent’s Anna is slightly less so but that’s the only flaw in a film that I found to be mov­ing, pro­found, witty and humane.

Mills dir­ects his own superb script with deft­ness, allow­ing (in fact prob­ably insist­ing on) his key line in the whole film to be almost swal­lowed: “He didn’t give up.” That’s it. It’s what the film is about and what the pre­vi­ous 100 minutes have been lead­ing up to. Every moment is import­ant and every scene and every line con­nects with each oth­er to con­struct a won­der­fully sat­is­fy­ing whole.

McGregor has seemed a bit lost in recent years – since that Star Wars sojourn per­haps – but here he deliv­ers on all that early prom­ise and reminds us what he was all about. And Plummer, who enriches every film he appears in, is simply tran­scend­ent in this. I whole­heartedly recom­mend Beginners and look for­ward to adding it to my per­son­al col­lec­tion when the home ver­sion is avail­able. It’s a keeper.

Contagion posterSteven Soderbergh’s more per­son­al works don’t often get released to cinemas here. He announced him­self back in 1989 with Sex, Lies and Videotape and for a while altern­ated his more com­mer­cial films such as Oceans Eleven with exper­i­ment­al work like Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience. Last year’s The Informant! star­ring Matt Damon was a bril­liant mix of the two and was there­fore released but bur­ied but by a per­plexed distributor.

Contagion sits squarely on the com­mer­cial side of Soderbergh’s register. It’s a pacy, ensemble, dis­aster movie about a SARS-type vir­us mutat­ing it’s way from bats to pigs to humans in a mat­ter of days and then spread­ing so fast that no agency can pre­vent the deaths of mil­lions. Soderbergh (work­ing from a script by Scott Z. Burns and pho­to­graph­ing the film him­self under his usu­al pseud­onym Peter Andrews) is at his cap­able best but you’d nev­er call this the work of an auteur.

Deeply cyn­ic­al about human motiv­a­tions and resi­li­ence in a world that can turn on us in a heart­beat, Contagion is per­haps not the best film to watch when you’re feel­ing a bit peaky.

Happy Ever Afters posterHappy Ever Afters may well be the worst film I have ever seen dur­ing 25 years of vis­it­ing the Paramount. An Irish wed­ding rom-com (the most dis­mal kind) star­ring Sally fidget-Hawkins as a single moth­er who mar­ries an African man so he won’t be depor­ted. Meanwhile, at the same hotel, Tom Riley is cel­eb­rat­ing mar­ry­ing his neur­ot­ic and depressed wife (Jade Yourell) for the second time. The two recep­tions col­lide and noth­ing so much as a single joke ensues.

The Paramount has always been bet­ter known (and cher­ished) for films like Last Train Home and Eco-Pirate, the kind of doc­u­ment­ar­ies that the main­stream (and even the main­stream art­houses) won’t play. Both of the above titles have arrived at the Paramount in the same week, both pro­duced in Canada, both with plenty of interest.

Last Train Home posterLast Train Home is the bet­ter of the two films, a dis­turb­ing and and quietly power­ful por­trait of the Chinese migrant fat­ory work­ers who keep their eco­nomy going. The title refers to the one chance that these 130 mil­lion people getto return to vis­it fam­ily – every year for Chinese New Year. Director Lixin Fan made the bril­liant Up the Yangtze a couple of years ago and he spe­cial­ises in show­ing us the inter-generational con­flicts that are bub­bling up under the sur­face of mod­ern China.

Parents like Changhua Zhan and Suqin Chen have worked in cloth­ing factor­ies thou­sands of miles from their fam­il­ies for over 15 years but will hap­pily tell the cam­era how much harder it was in the old days. But the kids who have been neg­lected – and told once a year to do bet­ter in school and thus avoid their par­ents’ fate – aren’t buy­ing it.

Eco-Pirate posterPaul Watson is a Canadian eco­lo­gic­al act­iv­ist who pro­fesses not to be inter­ested in people or their wel­fare – we’re a lost cause he believes. He goes to sea in his black ship – with razor blades wel­ded to the sides – to defend the whales, the dol­phines, the fish and the sea itself. Not every­one is going to agree with his meth­ods and not every­one is going to get some­thing out of Trish Dolman’s film (Eco-Pirate: the Story of Paul Watson) but if you have an interest in the top­ic you’ll find it a fairly even-handed por­trait of a dif­fi­cult man.

13 Assassins posterJust briefly, an enthu­si­ast­ic endorse­ment of 13 Assassins, Takashi Miike’s bril­liant Samurai action west­ern that’s play­ing late shows at selec­ted (i.e not many) cinemas. It’s the abso­lute epi­tome of a great big screen exper­i­ence – vivid and excit­ing – and in Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki) it may fea­ture the most evil char­ac­ter ever com­mit­ted to film.

An edited ver­sion of this review appeared in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 16 November, 2011.