The trailer for The Bucket List has been playing for weeks now, inducing groans at every appearance. By collecting a series of Jack Nicholson’s now trademark Jack-isms plus Morgan Freeman’s regular, twinkly, wise old man schtick and then sprinkled with plenty of schmaltz, the trailer made me actively want to avoid a film that looked like a lame set of saccharine clichés and tired ham acting – cynical Hollywood at its worst.
I am pleased to report, however, that The Bucket List is a much more enjoyable film than I was expecting. There is some excellent work from Nicholson and Freeman who are well coached by director Rob Reiner, with the help of a script by Justin Zackham that has several decent moments. Nicholson plays misanthropic health tycoon Edward Cole who is diagnosed with brain cancer and forced, due to his own tight-fisted policies, to share a room with car mechanic and lung cancer patient Freeman. When he discovers Freeman has a wish-list of things to do before he dies, he takes it upon himself to make them come true using the billions he has accumulated in the corrupt American health care system.
2008 is shaping up to be a year of great films about people being beastly to each other and the first cab off the rank is Tim Burton’s majestic adaptation of Sondheim’s broadway opera Sweeney Todd. Based on the true-ish story of the Victorian barber who murders his customers to provide fresh meat for his girlfriend’s pies, Sweeney Todd is positively Shakespearian in scale – meaty, savage, sinister and poignant. Johnny Depp plays the talented scissor-man who returns to London 15 years after he was transported to the colonies by crooked Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) who had desires on his pretty wife. Consumed with a passion for revenge Todd goes back to work above the shop selling London’s worst pies, made by the redoubtable Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). There, more by accident than design, they discover that his skills with a razor might be profitable in more ways than one.
Sondheim’s music and lyrics are as good as any other writing for the stage in the last century and the film version honours that talent unconditionally. When young Toby (Ed Sanders) sings “Not While I’m Around” (probably the most beautiful song ever written) to Mrs Lovett you can see the look in her eyes that shows he has just sealed his own fate, the temperature in the theatre seemed to drop a few degrees. Not just anyone can pull that off.
The best of the rest at the moment is Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, a pacy and observant look at the life of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), Harlem’s most notorious and successful drug dealer of the 1970s. Russell Crowe plays Richie Roberts, the only honest cop in New York. It’s an interesting story well told by three charismatic film personalities.
After the Wedding is a lovely, layered drama from Denmark starring the watchable Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale) as an aid worker at an Indian orphanage who is summoned back to Copenhagen by a mysterious billionaire (Rolf Lassgård). Lassgård wants to donate enough money to save the programme – millions of dollars – but there are strings attached. Those strings turn out to be less nefarious than they seem at first but the choice that Mikkelsen’s Jacob has to make is still a heart-breaking one. Totally recommended.
Totally un-recommended is the Australian comedy-drama Clubland about an unusual showbiz family led by domineering mother Brenda Blethyn. Asinine in conception and horrible in execution, it struggles to get one good performance out the entire cast put together.
Death at a Funeral isn’t much better, although a couple of performances (Peter Dinklage and a doughy Matthew McFadyen) rise above the cheap and nasty script. The funeral is for McFadyen’s father and various friends and family members have assembled to form a quorum of English stereotypes. Standard farce elements like mistaken identity and accidental drug-taking are shoe-horned together with the help of some poo jokes.
Alien vs. Predator: Requiem managed to disappear from my memory about as soon as I left the theatre with my ears still ringing from the noise. An Alien pod being transported across the galaxy crash lands in Colorado and starts laying eggs – cause that’s just how they roll. A creature from the Predator home-world tries to clean up the mess and a whole bunch of random citizens get caught in the middle. All the signature moments from the original Alien (the chest-bursting, the almost-kissing a whimpering young woman) are repeated often, to diminishing effect and, I know I sometimes see cinematic racism everywhere, is it really necessary for both malevolent extra-terrestrial races to look like big black men with dreadlocks?
There’s a factory in China, I’m sure, stamping out films like Elsa & Fred on a weekly basis, making subtle cultural and generational changes where necessary but preserving the formula like it’s Coca Cola. And fair enough as these films will always sell: un-challenging, easy to decipher, vaguely life-affirming. Elsa (China Zorrilla) is a batty old woman in a Madrid apartment block. Fred (Manuel Alexandre) is the quiet widower who moves in opposite. She decides to point him back the direction of life and he tries to make her dreams come true before it is too late.
Finally, Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution is an extremely well-made but overlong erotic thriller set in Japanese-occupied China during WWII. Stunning newcomer Wei Tang plays Wong Chia Chi, persuaded in a moment of youthful, patriotic weakness to join a student resistance group. She is sent undercover to try and woo the mysterious Mr Yee (Tony Leung) who is a senior official collaborating with the Japanese occupation forces. Unfortunately, for them both he is interested but a challenging mark and it is several years before she can get close enough to him (and believe me she gets very close) for the resistance to strike. Ang Lee is the poet of the stolen glance and he is in very good form – I just wish it hadn’t taken quite so long to get going.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 23 January, 2008.
Nature of Conflict: After the Wedding is distributed in NZ and Australia by Arkles Entertainment who I do some work for; Clubland is distributed in Australia and NZ by Palace whose NZ activities are looked after by the excellent Richard Dalton, who is a good mate.
At present Reading Cinemas are not offering press passes to the Capital Times. This means that their exclusive releases (such as Cloverfield) will go un-reviewed unless I can work something out with them or the distributor. Maybe I’ll just download them …
In 1993 Christchurch property developer Dave Henderson tried to get a GST refund on a project he was working on in Lower Hutt. When the IRD officer sexually harassed his partner, Dave threatened to kick him “half way down Cashel Street”. It turned out the IRD were the wrong people to threaten and the hell unleashed is entirely in the other direction. After years of audits, prosecutions and bankruptcies it took intervention from the heroic Rodney Hide to finally put a stop to the abuse.
We’re Here to Help will look right at home on television when it eventually appears (the IRD reception area looks like the old Shortland Street set) but if you go now you’ll have plenty to talk about at your summer barbecues.
There’s a lot to like about We’re Here to Help, particularly seeing experienced New Zealand actors like John Leigh and Stephen Papps given some freedom to play (and lead Erik Thomson is an effortless everyman) but the film gets terribly strange when Michael Hurst turns up dressed in a a fat suit to play Hide. He’s totally miscast and it becomes a completely different film (something by Jim Henson perhaps) when he is onscreen.
Have the IRD changed their ways? It has been argued that the unpleasantness served up to Henderson had its roots in an insular Christchurch business community but I know that several people connected to the production were very wary of potential IRD retaliation over the film and the fact that Producer John Barnett is currently being audited may not be an innocent coincidence.
Ian Curtis, Macclesfield’s matchless purveyor of un-listenable dirges, gets the big screen biopic treatment in Control. It’s a handsome production with some fine performances (not least from newcomer Sam Riley as Curtis); the actors playing Joy Division recreate the music with distressing accuracy and director Anton Corbijn employs the most effective use of black and white photography since Raging Bull.
Dog-sledding seems like a desperately uncertain method of transportation in The Last Trapper. Canadian hunter and wilderness veteran Norman Winther seems to spend most of his time tipping over, falling into frozen lakes, down ravines and tangling himself up with the dogs. Winther plays himself but it isn’t a documentary (although I’m sure there are grains of truth in each recreation). My recommendation would be to stick your fingers in your ears to ignore the clunky dialogue and poor dubbing and concentrate on the beautiful Yukonic visuals.
Back in 1983 Stephen King gave us a haunted car in Christine. Now, 24 years later he has come up with a haunted hotel room in 1408. Rumours that his next project will be about a haunted shopping trolley are pure speculation on my part. As for 1408, there are few surprises on offer and, apart from the always watchable John Cusack, it really did nothing for me.
Here in New Zealand Robert Redford’s patronising political science exercise Lions for Lambs seems so much like preaching to the choir but it would interesting to see it with a different audience, one for whom the simplistic history and ethics lessons on offer are fresh and inspiring. On second thoufghts I don’t think that audience exists. Tom Cruise plays ambitious Republican senator Jasper Irving, trying to manipulate credulous reporter Meryl Streep into promoting the latest random military surge in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan the surge itself has started badly and in California Pol-Sci professor Redford is trying to convince one last student to devote himself to selfless public service instead of easy money and a quiet life.
Finally, Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof is pure cinematic entertainment — an expertly constructed throwaway tribute to the cheap thrills of the 70s. Awesome Kurt Russell plays Stuntman Mike, a nasty piece of work who use his souped up “death proof” Chevy Nova to wreak havoc on two groups of young women. Luckily for the second bunch, they have kiwi stuntwoman Zoe Bell (Kill Bill) in the team and the ability to fight back. I came out of Death Proof grinning from ear to ear.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 14 November, 2007.
Nature of Conflict: John Leigh, Stephen Papps and several other members of the cast of We’re Here To Help are great mates of long standing. And Erik Thomson is a cousin.
I fully intended to bring some intellectual acuity back to film commentary this week; maybe toss around terms like mise en scène and cognitive dissonance; maybe name drop Bresson and his thematic austerity and formal rigour. Then I saw little Kiwi battler, The Devil Dared Me To, a hand-made low-brow entertainment from the vodka and Becks-fuelled imaginations of Back of the Y’s Chris Stapp and Matt Heath, and I realised that high-falutin’ cinema theory was destined for the back burner for another week.
Stapp plays wannabe stunt hero Randy Campbell and Heath is his malevolent mentor Dick Johansonson. The Timaru Hellriders are about to collapse under the weight of invidious OSH attention and Dick’s lost nerve. Oily promoter Sheldon Snake (Dominic Bowden) bails them out so they can take on the North Island and get Campbell closer to his dream of being the first man to jump Cook Strait in a rocket car. Wildly uneven but often very, very, funny The Devil Dared Me To contains possibly the worst acting (and worst spelling) of any recent New Zealand film.
It’s entirely appropriate that The Devil has come out while we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of Roger Donaldson’s Sleeping Dogs; another back yard, oily rag feature with a similar larrikin approach towards the production process.
2007 has been a great year for good films but a poor year for great films; very little of what I’ve seen in 2007 belongs in the very top echelon. The most serious contender so far is Atonement, adapted from Ian McEwan’s novel about a lie told in innocence that has far reaching and terrible consequences.
In a blissfully beautiful British country house in the summer of 1935, precocious 13-year-old Briony Tallis (luminous Saoirse Ronan) is jealous of the attention her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) is getting from handsome Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) and impulsively accuses him of a terrible crime. The accusation tears the young lovers apart and leaves Briony consumed by a grievous guilt that she takes a lifetime to come to terms with. Virtually faultless.
I really wanted to give The Brave One the benefit of the doubt until its absurdity and consistently poor narrative choices overcame my resistance and I simply had to hate it. Jodie Foster plays mild-mannered Erica Bain, a radio producer in New York, engaged to handsome doctor Naveen Andrews from Lost. Walking the dog late one night the couple are brutally attacked by thugs leaving her badly beaten and the boyfriend dead. Overcome by fear and grief she buys a gun for protection but finds herself taking on a much more malevolent role. Terrence Howard is the good cop on her trail.
There’s nothing so objectionable on offer in Conversations With My Gardener, a French charmer starring the ubiquitous Daniel Auteuil as an artist returning to his family home in the country while his divorce goes through. He employs wily local Jean-Pierre Darroussin to knock him up a vegetable garden and, over the summer, the two embark on a friendship that involves (as is the way of things in French films) the simple local giving life lessons to the sophisticated townie.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 17 October, 2007.
Paul Verhoeven is one of those directors that has no hand-brake, regardless of the subject matter. For ice-pick wielding murderers (Basic Instinct) or giant alien bugs (Starship Troopers) this damn-the-torpedos attitude is perfect; when we’re talking about Dutch jews being betrayed by corrupt members of the resistance in WWII — not so much.
Black Book is Verhoeven’s first film in seven years, and his first film back home in Holland since Flesh + Blood back in 1985. Carice van Houten plays Rachel Stein, a nightclub singer before the war, now on the run from the Nazis. When her family is murdered on the brink of escape she dyes her hair blonde and joins the resistance, going undercover and then falling in love with the good German played by Sebastian Koch from The Lives of Others (you know he’s going to be a good German because he collects stamps and doesn’t have a scar on his cheek).
As recounted by celebrated neurologist Oliver Sacks in a recent New Yorker, amnesia is a fascinating condition. In the article he tells the story of classical musician Clive Wearing who, due to enchaphalitis more than 20 years ago, can retain new memories for no longer than a few seconds. The devastation of his case is transcended by two things: the love of his wife (which he is aware of even though he sees her as if for the first time every day) and his musical ability which remains complete.
In Hollywood, amnesia (like other disorders) is rarely portrayed as a tragic condition with serious and fascinating psychological impacts but instead is usually just a plot device. New thriller Unknown, starring Jim Caviezel, Greg Kinnear and Barry Pepper, tries a little bit of both.
In a remote abandoned chemical warehouse five men wake up with no memories of who they are or how they got there. Two of the group have been kidnapped, the others are the gang. But who?
While all the evidence points to Caviezel being one of the kidnappers (he wasn’t tied up at the beginning for a start) he doesn’t feel like one and, despite the shifting allegiances and Lord of the Flies power-plays, he attempts to bind the group together so they can all escape before the ringleader returns with the ransom. It’s an interesting existentialist provocation although, in the end, further psychological insight is sacrificed in favour of yet another plot twist.
Insight is what forensic psychologist Tilda Swinton is after in Stephanie Daley. Heavily pregnant, and still mourning the loss of a previous unborn child, she is asked to interview the eponymous schoolgirl (Amber Tamblyn) who is accused of concealing her own pregnancy and then murdering the new-born baby. Her examination will decide the fate of the timid young Christian girl who may indeed be too innocent to realize what a drunken date-rape can lead to. Stephanie Daley is a well acted drama with a fine sense of place, located in snowy upstate New York, and a lot going on under the surface.
Back at the multiplex, Rush Hour 3 is one of the poorest excuses for entertainment it is been my misfortune to witness. And to think that part-timer Chris Tucker was paid $25m to star in it (a fee which evidently did not require any time at the gym to prepare). Jackie Chan is showing his age too. Abject.
I spent most of the time watching La Vie En Rose thinking that I’d seen the film somewhere before. A beautifully art directed recreation of the life of a troubled artist from the wrong side of the tracks, devastated by drug addiction and guilt, it could have been Ray or Walk The Line except for the fact that little Edith Piaf didn’t have time for the redemption and triumph that the Hollywood biopics demand.
Piaf was an extraordinary character, a huge and vibrant voice in a frail and tiny frame. Writer-director Olivier Dahan makes consistently interesting choices (particularly a death-bed montage at the end which amazingly contains nothing that we have seen before) and Marion Cotillard plays Piaf with all the fierce and demented self-destructive energy she can summon up. She’s a force of nature and it is one of the performances of the year.
Finally, superb documentary Deep Water finally gets the promised commercial release and I urge you not to miss it. And, if you already saw it at the Festival check it out again as it’s quite a different film second time around.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 3 October, 2007.
Full disclosure: Unknown is distributed in New Zealand by Arkles Entertainment who pay me money to do stuff for them from time to time.