Is it too early to suggest that we might be living in a golden age of cinema? Think of the filmmakers working in the commercial realm these days who have distinctive voices, thrilling visual sensibilities, solid intellectual (and often moral) foundations, a passion for combining entertainment with something more – along with an abiding love of cinema in all its strange and wonderful forms.
Jonze made his name with oddball stories like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation and the first thing you notice about his interpretation of the beloved Maurice Sendak children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, is that it simply doesn’t resemble anything else you’ve ever seen. With the help of writer Dave Eggers (the novel “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”, Away We Go) he has used the book as a starting point for a beautiful and sensitive meditation on what it is like to be a child (a boy child specifically).
Earlier this year I arbitrarily decided that the Hannah Montana 3D concert movie was not cinema and chose not to review it. Now, a few short weeks later, I exercise my right to indulge in rank hypocrisy by stating that the U2 3D concert movie is cinema and, thus, belongs in this column. Pieced together from concerts in soccer stadia across Latin America (plus one without an audience for close-ups), U2 3D is an amazing experience and truly must be seen to be believed.
I hadn’t expected the new digital 3D medium to be used so expertly so soon but creators Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington have managed to make the entire stadium space manifest with floating cameras and intelligently layered digital cross-fading, giving you a concert (and cinema) experience that can not be imagined any other way. Even if you are not a U2 fan this film deserves to be seen as an example of the potential of 3D to transform the medium.
In past columns this reviewer has pretty much unilaterally labelled 27 year old Ryan Gosling as the new Marlon Brando (thanks to extraordinary performances in Half Nelson and The Believer) but it is unlikely that even Brando would have been brave enough to choose Lars and the Real Girl as one of his projects. Lars is a slightly damaged young man, living in the garage of his family home in a snowy northern American town. Under pressure from the family and the community to be a bit more normal, Lars finds himself a girlfriend on the Internet – an anatomically correct doll named Bianca.
A lovely, sweet film about acceptance, love and judgement (lack of), Lars is another winner in a summer of them. Gosling’s performance is a thing of wonder but it wouldn’t be half as successful without great work from Paul Schneider, Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson to play off. Kudos to them all. Not to be missed.
The Eye screened in Cinema 6 at Readings and was the most handsome on-screen presentation I have seen since I started this gig: pin sharp focus, consistent light levels across the entire screen, no print damage and a perfectly steady flicker-free image. It’s a shame that the film was such garbage but you take your pleasure where you can find it. (Flicker is the unacknowledged curse of poor projection. Watching a film without it is like walking down Courtenay Place without the wind punching you in the arm the whole way. You don’t realise how annoying it is until it’s gone.)
Jessica Alba plays a blind concert violinist who gets a pair of haunted corneas in a transplant but instead of the real world she begins to see visions of death all around her. Yet another tired remake of an asian horror (this one came from Hong Kong originally) The Eye struggles and fails to justify its own existence.
Never Back Down is the ugly and offensive story of a high school kid (Sean Faris), angry and bitter after the death of his father in a drunk-driving accident he could have prevented, who gets involved in the local fight club and take on the bullies using mixed-martial-arts and the training of a wise guru (Djimon Hounsou).
An artefact from a decrepit and derelict culture, I hated this film so much I left the theatre and immediately tried to locate my Al-Qaeda application forms. Irredeemable.
But at least I stuck it out to the end which is more than I can say for the dreary French rom-com Change of Address. I don’t often leave films early but after yet another scene featuring several double-entendres about the main characters horn (he plays and teaches French Horn) I wasn’t sure whether I was watching an art movie or “Are You Being Served?”
There must be an audience for Bonneville, a pleasant road movie featuring the great Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates and Joan Allen, though the attendance on Monday night would indicate otherwise. It’s a shame there was nobody else there as there was some pleasure to be got from watching great screen actresses working together in a story that was . Our trio play three mormon women (of varying degrees of devotion) who are carrying the ashes of Lange’s husband to his estranged daughter in California. Traversing the backroads of Idaho, Utah and Nevada in the convertible that gives the film its name, they meet some interesting people, have some adventures and learn a bit about each other. Nothing startling but perfectly pleasant.
Opening Thursday for a limited engagement is Helen Smyth’s remarkable local documentary about Cuba, ¿La Verdad? (The Truth?). On an extended holiday in Cuba in 2000 Smyth met a delightful old gentleman named Nestor and spent several weeks interviewing him about his life before and after the revolution. He identified himself as an independent journalist and said he was too old to get any attention from the security police so he could write what he liked and support the counter-revolutionary organisations in Miami. Well, the truth was infinitely more interesting than even that.
The film is a lively testament to a good journalist’s instinct for a story as she finds herself unravelling layers of intrigue and learning about more than a century of U.S. involvement in Latin America – all thanks to a chance meeting on a bus. Special mention must also be made of the photography, particularly Geoff Marsland’s Super 8 footage of modern Cuba which adds so much to the flavour of the piece.
Finally, a surprising winner called Definitely, Maybe: another romantic comedy from the Working Title stable (Love Actually , etc). Ryan Reynolds (Smokin’ Aces) plays Will, about to divorce his wife. Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) is his 9 year old daughter and, understandably upset about this turn of events, she demands to know how this could happen. Were they never in love? Will tells her the story of his romantic life (changing the names) so she can see how complicated grown-up relationships are. Which of the three significant others over the period 1992 to 1998 (Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz and Isla Fisher) becomes Mom? It’s actually a lot more elegant than I’ve made it sound, and well-observed, too, about lots of things (not least Presidential politics). I’d watch it again, and I don’t think that very often.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 9 April, 2008 (although for cover photo reasons Aaron made The Eye the lead).
Notes on screening conditions: Lars and the Real Girl screened at a public preview in Penthouse 3; The Eye was almost perfect in Readings 6 (coincidentally that is the Readings digital cinema so maybe the 35mm got a tweak recently); Never Back Down was a public matinée screening at Readings; Change of Address was in the Bergman at the Paramount and the print was looking its age; Bonneville was in the Vogue Lounge at the Penthouse which has no digital sound and the sound was very poor – blown-speaker poor; ¿La Verdad? (The Truth?) was screened at home from a preview DVD and Definitely, Maybe was another public Readings matinée. I have to say for all their faults in terms of atmosphere the technical conditions at Readings are generally excellent.
Returning swiftly from the Festival is The Italian, a lovely and old-fashioned art-house winner about a six year-old Russian orphan played by the wonderful Kolya Spiridonov. He’s Vanya, a little urchin with soulful eyes who sees everything that goes on in his wretched Dickensian orphanage including the corruption, thievery and abuse. The mother of his best friend makes a pathetic drunken appearance which gives him the idea that he, too, might have a mother. And, if he has a mother then there’s no reason why he can’t find her so they can live together forever. Highly recommended.
My Best Friend is one of those French films that signals its gallic credentials with plenty of accordion music (though falls short of gratuitous Eiffel Tower shots like Orchestra Seats earlier in the year). Ubiquitous Daniel Auteuill plays an antique dealer who discovers he has no friends but needs one to win a bet. He discovers trivia buff taxi driver Dany Boon who seems to win friends effortlessly and demands to know his secret.
And, like so many French films, the effete bourgeois gets life lessons from the down-to-earth proletarian (cf Conversations With My Gardener, still to return from the Festival) because the life of an intellectual is no life at all. If this was an American remake starring John Travolta and, say, Chris Rock we’d call it the rubbish it is.
Talking of rubbish American remakes, No Reservations is a virtually shot-for-shot recreation of the German hit Mostly Martha about an uptight female chef disarmed by her 9 year-old niece and the vivid Italian chef she is forced to work beside. This is a vehicle for Catherine Zeta-Jones with support from Little Miss Sunshine’s Abigail Breslin and talking chin Aaron Eckhart and I’m sure most will find it unexceptional; I despised its lazy competence including the cynical ability to commission a rare Philip Glass score and then discard it whenever the need for a cheap pop cue appears.
Breach is a terribly good, low-key, post-Cold War thriller anchored by a Champions League performance from Chris Cooper as real-life FBI traitor Robert Hanssen who was caught and convicted in February 2001 after 22 years selling secrets to the Russians. Helping nail him is rookie Ryan Phillippe who, at first, is seduced by his pious Catholicism and computer-nerdery before discovering the complex and unusual man inside. Of course, while the FBI was putting every spare man-hour on the case of the mole within, several Saudi students were learning to fly planes in Florida so it wasn’t exactly the Bureau’s finest hour.
In The War Within, Grand Central Station in New York is the target of fictional Al-Qaeda terrorist Hassan who, like Derek Luke’s character in Catch a Fire a few weeks ago, is an innocent man radicalised by the brutality around him. Very well made and photographed (HD’s digital ability to produce vivid, saturated colours well to the fore) on a modest budget. The War Within is almost calculated to be of limited interest to mainstream audiences but will certainly reward those who seek it out.
In Black Snake Moan, psychologically-damaged abuse-victim Christina Ricci goes off the deep end when boyfriend Justin Timberlake leaves their small Tennessee town to join the National Guard. Grizzled Blues veteran Samuel L. Jackson chains her to a radiator to save her from herself but he has issues of his own, of course. Black Snake Moan gets better the more it trusts its characters and, if you can get past the pulp shock value, there’s a good film inside.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times, Wednesday 23 August, 2007.
Some screening notes: The Italian screened at home several weeks ago on a time-coded DVD from the Film Festival; My Best Friend viewed from the too close front row of a packed Penthouse Three (the big new one) on 11 August; No Reservations seen at a virtually empty staff and media screening in Readings 8 at 9.15 on a Monday morning (6 August); Breach watched this Monday (20 August) at the Empire in Island Bay who shouted me a free coffee after I bitched about the bus driver making me throw my first one away; The War Within screened at home on Saturday night from a gently watermarked DVD from Arkles, the distributor; Black Snake Moan screened at the Paramount on Monday afternoon.
Full disclosure: I have done paid work in the past for Arkles Entertainment (distributor of The War Within) and am designing their new web site which will be live next week.
This week’s Capital Times cinema review (published 18 October), featuring Out of the Blue (Robert Sarkies); Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris) and Junebug (Phil Morrison). Updated.