To really understand a country you have to go and live there – embed yourself with the people, soak up the culture. If you don’t have the time or inclination for that then the next best thing to is to get stuck in to their commercial cinema. Not the stuff that makes it into major international film festivals like Berlin and Venice, not the stuff that gets nominated for foreign language Academy Awards, but the films that are made to excite and please a local audience. That’s what festivals like Reel Brazil are all about – a week-long portrait of a country via its cinema.
In the late 60s Brazil had a kind of Brazilian Idol television pop competition where brave young artists performed their top song in front of a live audience baying for blood as if they were watching Christians versus lions. But in A Night in 67 we see that year’s competition rise above the boos and jeers to open a new chapter in Brazilian pop music – legendary names like Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso compete to win over the tough crowd and in the process launch massive international careers.
Two films this week made by screen legends whose careers have settled in to something a little less than their glorious past. Sidney Lumet was making television drama when it was broadcast live from the studio in the 40s and 50s, and made the first (and best) version of courtroom drama 12 Angry Men in 1957. In the 70s he made some of the best of those gritty New York stories that defined the decade (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network) but his most recent work has passed under the New Zealand radar, his last twofeatures not even getting a local release. To be honest I thought he was dead and figured that I must have missed his name pass by in one of those Academy Award salutes to the fallen.
Which makes Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead a lovely surprise: a gritty, R‑rated, heist-gone-wrong picture, set in those New York mean streets we seem to know so well (but also the verdant Westchester suburbs). Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke play two down-on-their luck brothers, young men whose character flaws render them inadequate to cope with the various pressures of modern living. Hoffman’s Andy is an ambitious real estate accountant (not a deal-maker but a wannabe player) with a drug habit and an embezzlement problem. Hawke’s Hank is divorced and struggling to pay the prep school fees and child support to his tough bitch ex-wife (Amy Ryan from Gone Baby Gone).
When Andy suggests that the robbery of a small suburban shopping mall jewellery store would be the answer to all their problems we are about to get one of the great set-ups for a thriller in modern memory and they are about to get in to a whole heap of trouble. Effortlessly switching perspectives and time-frames, Lumet proves that he hasn’t lost that ability to reveal human frailty by piling on the pressure. Totally recommended.
Brendan Gleason Gleeson (stretching his legs) plays self-made property developer Liam O’Leary who, under pressure from the banks and corrupt politicians, starts seeing visions of a man who looks like himself, following him around. It turns out this fellow is his doppelgänger, bent on destroying the life Liam has built for himself and taking anything valuable to be found in the rubble. The “evil twin” story is one of the oldest in literature and it makes for a pretty lumpy metaphor here. Despite all the success and riches brought by the Irish Miracle, as Father Andy who runs the homeless shelter (Ciarán Hinds) says, “for every success, someone else has to lose”. Boorman’s direction is workmanlike but he retains that annoying habit of re-recording all the dialogue later using ADR, making it sometimes seem like you are watching a poorly-dubbed foreign film.
Kung Fu Panda is a boisterous and entertaining animated flick that resembles an eight-year-old’s bedroom while they are throwing all their toys around. The story makes no attempt at originality, hoping that the voice genius of Jack Black and the thrilling broad-brush animation will provide enough energy to carry you through (and for the most part it does). Black plays Po, a panda with dreams of kung fu glory. When Tai Lung (Ian McShane), the evil snow leopard, escapes from detention bent on revenge the search goes out for a new Dragon Warrior, for only a Dragon Warrior can defend the valley from such a menace. And so on and so forth.
Finally, in the annals of pointlessness a new chapter must be written and that chapter will be titled Speed Racer. I fell asleep during The Matrix at the Embassy in 1999 so The Wachowski Brothers have never managed to work their magic on me but even so, I have rarely felt so detached from a big screen movie as I did watching this adaptation of a (supposed) cult Japanese kids cartoon. In fact, I found myself pondering the total carbon footprint of the experience if you add the appalling cost of the film to my sitting in an empty, climate-controlled, theatre on a Monday morning to watch it.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 2 July, 2008. Sorry for the delay in posting but somehow I managed to get pretty busy this week.
No review to post this week (only Hancock released and Will Smith will do nicely without any help or hindrance from me) and next week I’ll be putting up my mammoth Wellington Film Festival preview (cross-posted to Wellingtonista).
In 1997 two young hotshots stunned the film world by winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for their first produced script. Since then, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have suffered cruel mutterings ever since: that they couldn’t possibly have written such a good film by themselves and that if they did why haven’t they written anything else? Added to the indignity is the constant rumour that Hollywood script guru William Goldman netted a million dollars for three weeks work punching up Good Will Hunting on condition that he would forever deny it (which he denies).
In the 11 years since that win the career trajectories of Affleck and Damon have been public. Starring roles in blockbuster successes, high-profile romantic liaisons and (in the case of Affleck) a little bit of rehab. But there has been precious little original creative output from either party until the release of Gone Baby Gone, Affleck’s directorial debut (also co-written), which reached Wellington this week.
Directing is a real test of a filmmaker’s chops. Unlike a fudged writing credit you can’t fake being on a set (although a great crew, DP and editor can often cover a multitude of sins) but I’m thrilled to report that Affleck has produced a work of genuine lasting quality.
Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, Gone Baby Gone is set in the same Boston mean streets that Will (from Good Will Hunting) grew up in. If you saw Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River (also from a Lehane story) or Scorsese’s The Departed you’ll be familiar with the geographical territory, but Affleck’s eye is even more highly tuned to the neighborhood than those masters.
Four year old Amanda has been snatched from her home while her young single mother (sensational Amy Ryan) was getting stoned at a bar. The Police led by Morgan Freeman (himself suffering the loss of a child) are struggling to get traction from a community suspicious of uniforms. Young private investigator Patrick (Casey Affleck) and his partner Angie (Michelle Monaghan) are enlisted by the family to try and tease out some clues that would be unavailable to law enforcement.
And that’s when it gets really interesting – because Affleck chooses to downplay the thriller (or procedural) aspects of the piece in favour of character study and the unveiling of a terrible moral dilemma. And its a dilemma that remains perfectly balanced right to the end where, like Bogart’s Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, our honourable private eye is virtually alone, forced to live with the unending pain of doing the right thing.
The production line of asian-horror-remakes is still chugging along. The Eye (remake of a Hong Kong thriller) will be reviewed next week while Shutter (based on a Thai film called Shutter) has already been around a week or so. I find these things to be dreadfully tiresome for the most part, formulaic and predictable. In Shutter a newlywed American couple in Japan (Joshua Jackson and Rachael Taylor) find strange shadows appearing in their holiday snaps. It turns out there’s a spirit following them around, sneaking into their frames, spoiling their compositions. Well, their photography is about to be the least of their worries. Shutter is laughable for the first two-thirds but rescued by a well-manufactured dénouement so I ended up not hating it totally.
Owen Wilson has been in the news more for his mental health issues than his acting in recent months but it is worthwhile to be reminded that he remains one of the most watch-able actors of modern times and the pleasant enough comedy Drillbit Taylor comes to life whenever he is on the screen. He plays the eponymous Taylor, a military deserter and bum who takes on the job of protecting three nerdy kids from high school bullies. The kids are pretty funny too – like the kids from Superbad, only a few years younger.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 2 April, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: This is the first all-Readings edition of the weekly review since it commenced back in October 2006.