After what seems like weeks of holidays, Summer Noelles and Matinee Idles, Radio New Zealand National is pretty much back to normal which means the return of my fortnightly movie reviews. Let this be a little placeholder now that Rancho Notorious has become a fortnightly release.
After years of auteur theory we have become conditioned to describe films as products of their director and so in my first draft of this review I started off talking about Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids. But it isn’t really Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids, it’s Kristen Wiig’s Bridesmaids. She co-wrote it (with Annie Mumolo), co-produced it and stars in it as Annie, a thirty-something single woman living in Milwaukee, having a hard time of things (but a comedy hard time of things, this isn’t Down to the Bone or something from Romania).
Still, she’s lost all her money in a failed baking business (blamed on the economy not her marvellous cakes), she’s flatting with two awful English siblings who have no idea of boundaries and her best friend (Maya Rudolph from Away We Go) is getting married while she is in an entirely unsatisfactory ‘friends with benefits’ arrangement with douche Jon Hamm.
I’ve been busy over the last few weeks working on New Zealand’s biggest participatory film event, the V 48 Hours which reaches its local climax tonight at the Embassy Theatre. It’s a wonderful celebration of Wellington film talent and there may be door sales so check with the venue.
One of the inspirations for 48 Hours is the true story of a group of Mississippi kids who spent six years of weekends and holidays in the 1980s remaking Raiders of the Lost Ark — shot for shot — on home video. The project went from notorious to legendary in 2003 when the kids (now adults) were invited to meet Lucas and Spielberg and their story was even optioned by Paramount. I can’t see that picture getting made now as Spielberg (and J.J. “Star Trek” Abrams) have come up with something that, though partially inspired by the boys’ VHS efforts, goes in a different direction entirely, honouring not just their homemade Raiders but Spielberg’s own E.T. and Close Encounters .
In a small Ohio town in 1979 a bunch of kids are making a zombie flick so they can enter the local Super 8 film competition. During an unauthorised night shoot at the railway station they witness a devastating train crash which unleashes mysterious forces that the Government is desperate to cover up. As the freaked-out citizenry are evacuated so the Air Force can hunt down the whatever-it-is that’s escaped, our heroic kids head back in to the danger zone armed only with curiosity and that child-like sense of right and wrong that Mr. Spielberg used to specialise in.
Of all directors currently working in the Hollywood mainstream Michael Mann is arguably the greatest stylist. No one at the multiplex has more control of the pure aesthetics of filmmaking, from colour balance and composition through editing and sound, Mann’s films (from Thief in 1981 to the misguided reworking of Miami Vice in 2006) have had a European visual sensibility while remaining heavily embedded in the seamy world of crime and punishment.
Now Mann has turned back the clock and made a period crime film, set during the last great depression. Based on the true story of the legendary bank robber John Dillinger, whose gang cut a swathe across the Midwest in 1933 and 1934, Mann’s Public Enemies is a stylish and superbly crafted tale of a doomed hero pursued by a dogged lawman. Dillinger is portrayed by Johnny Depp with his usual swagger and his nemesis is the now sadly ubiquitous Christian Bale.
This week, three films which trade on a twist or revelation (to varying degrees of success). First, Seven Pounds reunites the creative team behind 2006’s excellent The Pursuit of Happyness and is this year’s annoying entry in the “Will Smith Serious Movie Contest”. Smith plays the mysterious benefactor Ben Thomas who appears to be looking for deserving strugglers who need a helping hand (like a researcher for “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”) but as the circumstances are slowly unravelled a darker picture emerges.
Put together with considerable talent and passion by all concerned (supporting performances from Barry Pepper and Woody Harrelson are worth mentioning), Seven Pounds suffers from a maddening script and, frankly, a totally misguided conception which someone should have put a stop to much sooner. Yet, it continues to look beautiful, and the performances remain first rate, right up until the most lunatic of loose ends are tied up and you are released once again, bewildered, in to the Wellington sunshine.
Seven Pounds is reminiscent of Iñárritu’s masterpiece 21 Grams and is similarly about atonement — but the only atonement required here should come from screenwriter Grant Nieporte (whose most high-profile previous credit is an episode of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”).
There’s an example of real writing on display in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, an adaptation of his own stage play which was produced at Circa last year. In the Bronx in 1964, a progressive young Catholic priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is accused by harridan headmistress Meryl Streep of abusing 12-year-old pupil Donald Miller. In a series of lengthy scenes between Hoffman, Streep, witness Sister James (Amy Adams) and the boy’s mother (little-known Viola Davis more than holding her own in this heavyweight company) the investigation is played out.
Only it isn’t really an investigation — just a hunch followed by political and emotional manoeuvring to provoke the downfall of a possibly innocent man. There are many complexities to take account of: Miller is the only black child in a school full of Irish and Italian kids, he’s a sensitive soul looking for a father figure, Hoffman insists he is simply innocently tending his flock. None of this is enough for the sour old Principal who believes her knowledge of human nature trumps all.
When Doubt was playing on Broadway many critics drew parallels with the Bush II rush to war in Iraq, based on faith rather than facts (which Shanley hasn’t denied), but with a little distance the broader implications of faith versus doubt are allowed some air.
Shanley hasn’t directed a film since the under-appreciated Joe Versus the Volcano back in 1990 and he proves capable enough here, although the film never really escapes the stage. But it’s an intelligent, well-acted, thought-provoking little drama and we should be grateful for it.
The most successful twist of the week comes in the unassuming Italian drama My Brother is an Only Child, a genial family drama, 60s coming of age story and political history lesson. In the small industrial town of Latina, founded by the fascists in the 30s and remaining sympathetic to Mussolini’s rule, two brothers compete politically and romantically. Manrico (Riccardo Scamarcio) is the older Benassi brother, a fiery leftist with a roving eye. Younger brother Assio (Elio Germano) tries the seminary and fascism before wising up. Between the two boys is the beautiful Francesca (Diane Fleri), distracting them both from the important political matters at hand.
When it comes, the twist is like a kidney punch, sucking all the air out of you. You’ve grown to like all these characters with their passionate, expressive, emotional Italian-ness and by the end you find you really care — something that the clever-clever Seven Pounds was never likely to achieve.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 21 January, 2009.
I want to apologise to regular readers for the poor quality of the prose in this week’s review. I knew it was pretty crappy when I submitted it but the combination of only one day in Wellington before deadline meant I had to write it and send it before returning to work on Tuesday. It could definitely have used an extra polish.
This week’s Capital Times film review: Mr Bean’s Holiday (Steve Bendelack); Twice Upon A Time (Antoine De Caunes); Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro); The Illusionist (Neil Burger); Breaking and Entering (Anthony Minghella).