I don’t have much room this week and I want to spend most of it gushing over Slumdog Millionaire so let’s get started.
Back in 2003, when the Incredibly Strange Film Festival was still its own bumptious stand-alone anarchic self, we opened the Festival with the summer camp spoof Wet Hot American Summer and goodness me, wasn’t that a time? Written and directed by David Wain, WHAS was a pitch-perfect tribute to teen comedies of the 80s and his new film Role Models attempts to ride the current wave of sexually frank grown-up comedies but he doesn’t seem to really have the heart for it. The gross-out bits are uncomfortably gross, the boobies seem like afterthoughts and the film really doesn’t hit its straps until it starts cheering for the underdog late in the day.
Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott play salesman peddling energy drink to high school kids. After an unfortunate (stationary) road rage incident their jail time is converted to community service at Sturdy Wings — a ‘big brother’ outfit matching misfit kids up with responsible male adults. This kind of material has proved outstandingly popular recently when produced by Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and I can’t help thinking that if he had gotten his hands on Role Models it would have about 20% more jokes in 16% shorter running time — he really is that much of a machine.
Clint Eastwood has been on our screens for over 50 years and at 78 years old he has decided to call it a day and his valedictory performance in Gran Torino is completely worthy of the man. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a working class widower living on a suburban Detroit street, one of the few original residents still around as the neighbourhood fills up with Hmong immigrants. In a gang initiation his teenage neighbour Thao tries to steal Walt’s beloved 1972 Gran Torino (a car he helped build on the Ford assembly line) and, as penance, the kid is forced to work for Walt over the summer. They get to know each other — and the threat from the Hmong gang-bangers who now have an axe to grind with Walt as well as Thao and his family.
Showcasing the Taranaki landscape as well as the people, Show of Hands has an ambition as small as the town but, sadly, doesn’t bear up under too much scrutiny. A struggling car yard owner (StevenStephen Lovatt) runs a hands-on-the-car promotion as a last ditch attempt to save his business and a handily representative cross-section of New Zealand society turns out to have a go.
The three main contenders are Melanie Lynskey’s single-mum (who needs the car to ferry her wheelchair-bound daughter about); Matt Whelan’s young trustafarian and Craig Hall’s cold-fish businessman who may or may not need the dough to solve his business problems or may or may not just be an ultra-competitive egotistical jerk. The whole film suffers from a similar lack of clarity which makes suspending disbelief a struggle. The acting is fine however and Whelan in particular is excellent — one for the future there.
Cursed with a not-very-promising title, and a high concept premise (obnoxious dentist dies for seven minutes on an operating table and wakes up with the ability to see the ghosts of Manhattan), David Koepp’s Ghost Town turns out to be one of the mainstream pleasures of the year. I’m going to assume that every Hollywood rom-com with an English lead was written for Hugh Grant, but we can be grateful that he has all-but retired as it gives Ricky Gervais a meaty role which he grabs with both hands. Gervais may not have much range as an actor, but he does have depth and I found myself being unaccountably moved by a film that always delivers a little more than it says on the tin.
If the remarkable success of the 48 Hour Film Competition has proved anything in recent years it is that making films is now as much of a community experience as watching them and it’s that same hand-made, JFDI, aesthetic that Michel Gondry celebrates in the very special Be Kind Rewind.
While minding doddery Danny Glover’s ramshackle New Jersey video (and thrift) store, Mos Def discovers that all the precious VHS tapes have been erased by magnetic doofuss Jack Black. To save the business our heroes re-make the contents of the store using only a handycam and their ingenuity, eventually enlisting the whole town. I loved Be Kind Rewind and you’ll be honouring the spirit of the film if you see it at a theatre with a bunch of strangers.
Mirrors is yet another re-make of an Asian horror flick and there ain’t much water left in that particular well. Kiefer Sutherland plays a troubled NY ex-cop who takes a security guard job at an abandoned department store (Romanian and Hungarian studios plus a tiny bit of stock footage stand in for Manhattan). On his first night on the job the mirrors start to freak him out and two hours of excruciating exposition follow.
Also shot on a European sound stage, though a second unit did make it through JFK to shoot some scenery, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People is an amiable little romp starring Simon Pegg as a try-hard English journalist trying to make it as a celebrity writer on a top New York magazine. Pompous yet insecure, Pegg’s Sidney Young (loosely based on author Toby Young whose book was itself loosely based on his own short Manhattan career) cuts a slapstick swathe through high society. Pegg is ok (but he’s no Ricky Gervais, see above) but Megan Fox as movie star Sophie has the worst skin I’ve ever seen on a Hollywood leading actress.
Writer-Director Guy Ritchie’s dreadful faux-cockney purple prose has been drooled all over the interminable RocknRolla, a boysie bit of rough and tumble that’s the cinematic equivalent of someone grabbing you around the neck and rubbing their knuckles into your skull. The sloppy plot involves a Russian oligarch’s lucky painting, an old school East End gangster on the way out, a rock star faking his own death and a big black ticket tout with a taste for Jane Austen.
Ritchie does have an eye for young talent (Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels made Jason Statham a star): look out for Toby Kebbell (the junkie rock star Johnny Quid) and Tom Hardy (Handsome Bob), just don’t look out for them in this.
Finally, there’s not many films that wouldn’t be improved with the addition of the wonderful Jim Broadbent, and he really shines in And When Did You Last See Your Father?, a worthy brit-lit adaptation that also stars Colin Firth. Broadbent plays the father in question, a jovial egotist who doesn’t realise that his over-abundant joie-de-vivre is crushing the spirits of those around him. Firth is poet Blake Morrison, coming to terms with his father’s terminal illness with the help of plenty of flashbacks to his 60s childhood. Director Anand Tucker builds his case carefully until a splendidly moving finale draws a line under a very satisfying film.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 19 November, 2008.
Nature of conflict: I produced a couple of plays for Anthony McCarten back in the early 90s — “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and the revival of “Yellow Canary Mazurka”.
Notes on screening conditions: Ghost Town, How to lose Friends…, RocknRolla and Mirrors were all at Readings public sessions (all fine except How to Lose Friends… was slightly out of frame meaning some of the titles spilled on to the masking); Be Kind, Rewind was at the Paramount and the first half was 20% out of focus and the whole film was about 20% too quiet; Show of Hands was a late night watermarked DVD from Rialto Entertainment and And When Did You Last See Your Father? was at the Embassy during the Film Festival back in July.
Two hitmen (Gleeson and the excellent Colin Farrell) have been sent to the sleepy Belgian town of Bruges to lie low after a job has gone wrong. Once there, they are supposed to enjoy the many historic and cultural treats of the beautifully preserved walled medieval city while waiting for further instructions. This suits Gleeson (older, wiser, worldly) but Farrell, fractious after the terrible stuff-up, wants booze, birds, drugs and trouble. And even in Bruges he finds some of all of it.
The most purely emotional experience I have had in a cinema this year was watching the delightful documentary Young @ Heart during the Film Festival. It’s a life-affirming (and by its very nature death-affirming too) portrait of a group of Massachusetts senior citizen choristers who tour the world with a programme of (often consciously ironic) rock and pop classics and it starts out like the quirky British tv programme it was originally intended to be. But then these remarkable, loveable, buoyant characters take control and by the time they get to Dylan’s Forever Young, I may as well have been a puddle on the floor of the cinema. Young at Heart is so successful I even fell in love with Coldplay for about five minutes. It’s that good.
One of the pitfalls you try and avoid in this gig is reviewing the film you wish you were watching instead of the one that is actually in front of you. It’s important to judge a work on it’s own terms, as well as it’s own merits, and avoid imposing your expectations but, with the best will in the world, there are times when you sit there wishing that the film you were watching was, y’know, better.
Exhibit A is The Bank Job, a lethargic caper-movie starring the reliable B‑movie action hero Jason Statham. It has all the attributes of an entertaining night out — chirpy knees-up cockney ruffians a la Lock Stock; painstaking bank heist preparations like Ocean’s 1x; an escape that goes terribly wrong like The Italian Job. The problem is all in the execution: mainly the editing which provides no impetus to the drama until the final third which by then is too late. It’s worth watching for the impeccable early-70s, East End art direction though. The flavour of the times are perfectly created.
Once I’d got over the fact that The Edge of Heaven wasn’t the long-awaited Wham! biopic I was expecting and instead an arthouse drama set in Turkey and Germany, I settled in to enjoy myself enormously. Writer-Director Fatih Akin specialises in stories about the intersection between Turkish immigrants living hard lives in the new Europe but he has surpassed himself this time. Less socio-political than his previous work (but with those threads still woven throughout), The Edge of Heaven tells two parallel stories (that intersect and occasionally frustratingly don’t) about the pain and heartbreak of being a parent and child. A richly detailed screenplay supports the clever structure and the film ends on a perfectly satisfying note. Recommended.
Charlie Bartlett is a smug, pseudo-indie, comedy about a gifted rich kid (Anton Yelchin) whose money making schemes get him kicked out of private school and into the mainstream where his attache case and blazer mark him out for unwanted attention. Charlie’s access to the family shrinks (and their prescribing power) allows him to become unofficial school therapist, handing out Ritalin like candy, providing these kids with the sensitive ear that they can’t find anywhere else and him with a role that transcends getting beaten up everyday.
Sadly, only the great Robert Downey Jr. (as the alcoholic principal) makes the lines sound, not only, like he’d actually thought of them himself but that they had occurred to him right then and there. Everyone else holds their characters at arms length and the whole film wears it’s irony rather too consciously on its sleeve.
A recent article in The Australian tries to define what ails current newspaper cinema reviewing and one of the examples is “boosting unworthy local material”. No danger of that with Apron Strings, the first feature by Toi Whakaari graduate and award-winning short film maker Sima Urale. A kitchen-sink drama set in the multi-cultural badlands of South Auckland that uses cooking as a metaphor as well as a plot mechanism. In a Curry House on a suburban street corner, Leela Patel makes her kormas and her sweets while long-lost sister Laila Rouass has become a top tv chef using those same recipes. Meanwhile, Jennifer Ludlam’s bigoted cake decorator a few doors down has to deal with her own disappointing children and a changing world she isn’t very keen on. (Perhaps too) lovingly and (too) carefully directed Apron Strings’ flaws are on the page rather than on the screen. Screenwriters Shuchi Kothari and Dianne Taylor squeeze so much in that the film collapses under the weight of all that coincidence and so many ‘points’. They also prove that it is very difficult to write a decent, three-dimensional, white racist character these days without falling back on cliché.
Another example of film reviewer irrelevance from The Australian is the concept of quote-whoring — writing specifically to get quoted in an ad. Well, here’s my one for this week: “I was woken by the sound of my own snoring”. Probably not the fault of Prague, the new Danish drama starring ubiquitous Mads Mikkelsen, as I did manage to stir before the half way point and quite enjoyed myself after that, but it takes a long time to get going. I’m sure there is a lot in there to reward a patient and attentive viewer but, apart from watching one of the great modern screen actors at work, I couldn’t find it.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 13 August, 2008.
Nature of conflict: Well, that gag about falling asleep ended up giving me plenty of grief after I repeated it on Nine to Noon. Prague is distributed in New Zealand by Arkles Entertainment, who I do some work for every now and then, and Managing Director (and all round paragon despite some dubious political allegiances) John Davies was not well-pleased. The threat to fire me faded somewhat when the 4 star Herald review appeared. Which just goes to show that, despite any appearances of a conflict of interest, the opinions offered here are always independent and free of influence.