My big beef with most eco-documentaries is the lack of hope. Whether it’s Rob Stewart (Sharkwater), Franny Armstrong (The Age of Stupid) or even Leonardo DiCaprio (The 11th Hour) most of these films go to a lot of trouble to tell you what’s wrong with the planet but leave us feeling helpless and depressed.
That’s why I like Kathleen Gallagher’s work so much. Her film last year, Earth Whisperers/Papatunauku told ten stories of people who were making a difference, inspiring change and showing us that there are solutions as well as problems. This year she has repeated the tonic, focusing on our waterways and our relationship with the sea: Water Whisperers/Tangaroa.
It’s all about the adaptations this week and contender number one is a film that deserves all the attention it has been receiving, even though it falls well short of its esteemed source material. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is based on the greatest graphic novel of all time, Moore and Gibbons 1986 pre-apocalyptic masterpiece which is one of the darkest portraits of the modern human condition ever rendered in the bold, flat colours of a comic book.
In a parallel USA in which costumed vigilantes are real but outlawed, the spectre of nuclear annihilation looms over a supposedly free society that is coming apart at the seams. One by one, somebody is disposing of the retired heroes and only masked sociopath Rorschach (who never turned in his mask, revealed his identity or stopped beating up bad guys) deems it worthy of investigation.
The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Day in 1979. They remained in the country, brutally suppressing the local resistance, until they were forced to leave in 1989: almost ten years of occupation that destroyed one country and ruined another. One side of the story was told in the recent film The Kite Runner: in it we saw a vibrant and cosmopolitan culture bombed back to the stone age by the Soviets and their equally one-eyed Taliban replacements.
For peaceniks like myself, the Soviet aggression was an inconvenient fact, difficult to acknowledge during our efforts to prevent nuclear annihilation at the hands of war-mongerers like Ronald Reagan. While we were marching for peace and disarmament, playboy Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) was secretly funding the Mujahideen insurgents to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, providing them with the weapons that would bring down the Russians.
With the help of a renegade CIA-man (wonderful Philip Seymour Hoffman), a Texan socialite (Julia Roberts), an Israeli spy (Ken Stott) and President Zia, dictator of Pakistan (Om Puri), Wilson persuaded, cajoled, threatened and coerced Congress to pay for all this – without them even knowing what it was for. Aaron Sorkin’s script is razor-sharp, often very funny, and does a great job of not spelling out all the lessons we should be learning. Charlie Wilson’s War may have brought about the end of the Cold War but it also opened up Afghanistan to the brutal fundamentalism of the Taliban, increased the influence of the Saudis in the region and indirectly led to the Iraqi poo-fight we are in now. As Wilson says, it’s all about the endgame.
How strange it is that two of my favourite films of the past twelve months should be about coming-to-terms with an unwanted pregnancy. Knocked Up, last year, was a broad comedy with a good heart and this year Jason Reitman’s Juno is even better: full of unexpected subtlety and nuance from a great cast working with a tremendous script from gifted newcomer Diablo Cody.
Like last year’s Hard Candy, Ellen Page plays a precocious teenager only this time she is not a homicidal revenge maniac. At only 16, she finds herself pregnant to the unlikely Paulie Bleeker (Superbad’s Michael Cera) and takes it upon herself to find appropriate parents for the little sea monkey growing inside her. The rich couple who sign on (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) look perfect, but looks can be deceiving. Juno is an easy film to love and I can see people going back to it again and again.
If a film has a good heart you can forgive its flaws, but what to do when it has no heart at all? Cloverfield is a modern-day retelling of a classic Hollywood monster movie and once again New York gets a terrible pounding. A group of self-absorbed yuppies are caught in the carnage and try to escape but manage to film the entire thing on their camcorder. Yeah right. Technically admirable, Cloverfield cleverly maintains the home video conceit but shaky-cam motion sickness got to me in the end.
Meet the Spartans is all flaw and no redeeming feature: another miss and miss spoof of last year’s hits. Soft targets include “Ugly Betty”, “American Idol”, Paris Hilton (yawn) and 300. The Spartans were gay, apparently. And not in a good way.
The Jane Austen Book Club is a well-intentioned adaptation of the popular novel about a group of women (and one dude) who meet once a month to talk about their favourite author. Writer and director Robin Swicord has assembled a fine ensemble cast including Maria Bello, Kathy Baker, Amy Brenneman and Jimmy Smits but too often they are representatives of people rather than people themselves and the film is un-persusasive. Actually, that’s not entirely true: the tentative relationship between Bello’s independent hound breeder and Hugh Dancy’s shy IT guru works nicely (for the most part).
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 30 January, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: Charlie Wilson’s War screened at a Reading Cinemas print check, 9am last Tuesday morning (thanks, Hadyn), sitting in the comfy Gold Lounge chairs; Juno screened on Sunday afternoon in Penthouse 1 (the original). It’s nice to see the Penthouse finally replacing the seats in Cinema 1 but perhaps they could think about replacing the sound system with something that wasn’t salvaged from a transistor radio. Meet the Spartans was seen at a busy Saturday matinée at Readings where the brain-dead teenagers around me hooted at every stupid, lame, joke. Cloverfield was in Readings digital cinema (Cinema 5) and looked sensational. Digital really is the future and it can’t come soon enough. I shudder to think how ill I might have felt if I’d seen Cloverfield from a wobbly, scratchy print. The Jane Austen Book Club was the second part of a Penthouse double-feature on Sunday, this time in Cinema 3 (the new one) which is splendid.
One of the benefits of a marginally-classical education is that when someone makes a film about King Leonidas and The Battle of Thermopylae I have a vague idea what they’re on about before I go in but nothing could prepare me for the sheer visceral “total” film-making on display in Zack Snyder’s extraordinary 300. Involving and repellent by turns, it’s a thrilling testament to full-on masculine male manliness; unspeakably violent of course but extreme in almost every other way imaginable too.
Based on Frank Miller’s $80-a-copy graphic novel (recreated frame for beautiful frame in many cases), 300 follows Leonidas and his hand-picked Spartan army as they try to defend a disinterested Greece from a million Persians, their slaves, elephants and transexuals.
Leonidas is played with considerable star-making charisma by Gerard Butler (Dear Frankie); Aussie David Wenham narrates as if he got punch in the throat as well losing an eye in the battle and the beautiful Lena Headey as Queen proves that Spartan women were made of the same perfectly formed but psychologically incomplete material as the men.
Fresh from the Showcase, The Namesake is a lovingly rendered (if overlong) adaptation of the novel of the same name by Jhumpa Lahiri featuring Kal Penn (given name: Kalpen Modi), veteran star of juvenile rubbish like Epic Movie and Van Wilder. Penn proves he really can act as Gogol Ganguly, New York-born Indian searching for an identity that doesn’t involve his embarrassing first name.
In the initially bewildering Stomp The Yard, Columbus Short plays DJ, a young hoodlum and gifted dancer who is given one more chance after the death of his younger brother in a dance-related brawl. That chance involves enrolling in Truth University, the legendary African-American centre of learning and culture where the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Michael Jordan set the highest alumni standards.
At Truth he finds his dancing skills are tested in the National Steppin’ Contest (a kind of team dancing unique to Black America) and his romantic skills are given a tweak by the beautiful April (Meagan Good). I’m about as far away from the target market for this film as can be imagined but, once I’d worked out that this dancing stuff was actually serious, I quite enjoyed it.
Meanwhile, Vitus is a little sweetie from Switzerland about a gifted child who desperately wants to be normal. A lovely performance from twinkly Bruno Ganz is worth the price of admission and Teo Georghiu as 12-year-old Vitus really has the chops to make that old joanna sing. Remarkable.
Finally a couple of disposable items for the school holidays: TMNT is actually the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and it boasts video-game quality animation and a slumming Patrick Stewart on villain-voice-duty. I found the turtles really annoying but, then again, they are teenagers. It’s sort of the point.
Much more entertaining is Disney’s Meet the Robinsons, an anarchic affair that unlike other animated films has a kind of improvised quality, bouncing along chucking jokes in random directions and a few of them stick. 12 year old orphan Lewis is a gifted inventor desperate for a family. When his latest invention is stolen by mysterious Bowler Hat Guy, young hot-head Wilbur Robinson arrives from the future to help set things straight (and help Lewis find his mother).
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on 11 April, 2007.