After what seems like weeks of holidays, Summer Noelles and Matinée 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.
As an added bonus, here’s Rancho Notorious co-host Kailey Carruthers talking to Lynn Freeman on Sunday’s Standing Room Only arts show.
Plus, New Zealand International Film Festival director Bill Gosden and I talking to Lynn earlier this summer about the future of New Zealand film under the new film commission régime of David Gibson.
This year the summer holidays seemed to have been owned by the unlikely figure of T.J. Miller, deadpan comedian, supporting actor and eerily familiar background figure. In Yogi Bear he was the ambitious but dim deputy park ranger easily duped by Andrew Daly’s smarmy Mayor into helping him sell out Jellystone to corporate logging interests, in Gulliver’s Travels he was the ambitious but as it turns out dim mail room supervisor who provokes Jack Black into plagiarising his way into a fateful travel writing gig and in Unstoppable he’s the slightly less dim (and certainly less ambitious) mate of the doofus who leaves the handbrake on and then watches his enormous freight train full of toxic waste roll away.
So, a good summer for T.J. Miller then, what about the rest of us?
If I had to use a four letter word starting in ‘S’ and ending in ‘T’ to describe the new Angelina Jolie thriller, Salt wouldn’t be the first word I would think of. The last time Ms Jolie played an action heroine she was a weaver/assassin receiving her orders from a magic loom and her new film is only slightly less ridiculous. What we have here is an unimaginative reboot of old Cold War ideas, as if the script was found in someone’s draw and all they’ve done is blow the dust off it.
Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA spook on the Russian desk. When we meet her she’s in her underwear being tortured by the North Koreans. A spy-swap gets her out even though, according to the rules, she should’ve been left to her fate. Back in Washington, she’s married to the world’s expert on spiders (he studies them in jars at the kitchen table) but he’s German so obviously not above suspicion.
After Slumdog Millionaire last week, everything seems kind of old-fashioned. At any other time a film like Milk would stand out from the crowd as an example of quality, thoughtful, serious story-telling. This week, though, it seemed pedestrian, predictable and, frankly, a little straight.
Harvey Milk was a gay activist in San Francisco at a time when the gay community’s few human rights were under threat from the reactionary right. But Milk (played with his usual humility by the great Sean Penn) was a passionate advocate for personal freedom and a cunning politician who made clever and vital alliances across the political spectrum. The one alliance he failed to make (because he had no way of foreseeing that Supervisor Dan White’s mental instability would take so tragic a form) ended up being the one that killed him and it’s ironic that Milk wasn’t assassinated because of his sexuality or his ideas – but because of petty political jealousy.
Valkyrie is the latest release from Tom Cruise’s own United Artists company and it fascinates me the choices he makes when he’s essentially pleasing himself rather than meeting the expectations of the public. Cruise plays Von Stauffenberg, wounded German WWII hero with a conscience. He (along with what looks like a Pirates of the Caribbean reunion of great British actors) decide that to save Germany, and secure an early peace with the Allies, Hitler must be disposed of. Director Bryan Singer seems a lot more comfortable building subtle tension here than with the bombast of Superman Returns, and Cruise is pleasingly un-Cruise-like – no grandstanding or cheesy grins here.
What I found most interesting about Valkyrie is the portrait of the Nazi bureaucracy – a paper-shuffling, form-filling nightmare; a perfect environment for an ambitious paranoiac to thrive and beyond even a dedicated team of traitors to overturn.
Clint Eastwood’s Changeling also shares the subtext of dehumanising bureaucracy, but his storytelling compass is way off this time. Angelina Jolie plays an honest single-mom in 1920’s Los Angeles. Her young son disappears and the corrupt and venal LAPD decide the first stray kid they find is hers and then demonise and victimise her when she complains. What starts out as a thrillingly unbelievable story loses its way early on and by the time we get to the court room the narrative drive has all but fizzled out – and that’s only the end of the second act.
The richly detailed evocation of the period is an undeniable pleasure which means there is always something to look at (for some of you that might even be the skeletal Angelina), even while you are wishing the film would just hurry up and finish.
During last year’s Film Festival I unfortunately fell asleep during Tomas Alfredson’s atmospheric Swedish vampire story Let the Right One In but I subsequently heard many great things about it so I thought I’d give it another go this weekend. Guess what? It did it again – out like a light. There must be something hypnotic that happens about 20 minutes in as I lost consciousness at exactly the same point as before. Even after waking up, I found I couldn’t get enthusiastic about a film that seems to take forever to get anywhere and, unforgivably, feels much longer than it is.
Also from the Festival, but keeping one very much awake, was Steve McQueen’s Hunger (winner of the Camera D’or at Cannes last year for best first film). McQueen is (literally) a visual artist and now a heavyweight filmmaker. In pure art-house style it elliptically tells the story of the IRA hunger strikers of the early 80s who fought to be recognised as political prisoners while Thatcher’s government refused to acknowledge their legitimacy. It’s heavy (about as heavy as you get these days) but brilliant.
Sparkle is an inessential comedy drama about a naïve young scouser making his way through London, meeting interesting characters and finding love. It’s made by Tom Hunsinger & Neil Hunter who six years ago made the well-liked Lawless Heart . Unfortunately, this is a backward step with none of that film’s narrative cleverness and characters that are sketched rather than painted.
Even that’s better than the half-arsed Sex Drive which is Exhibit A in my current case against the culture. Decent young Ian (Josh Zuckerman) can’t get laid so borrows his brother’s pristine red GTO to drive across country to visit a ‘sure thing’ he met on the Internet. Even the soppy ‘friends forever’ ending is cynical. These sorts of films (Role Models is another example) used to be made by indies for drive-ins and the exploitation came from the gut (if not the heart). Now they’re part of a studio portfolio and are made by hacks rather than mavericks.
Printed (for the most part) in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 11 February, 2009.
Notes on screening conditions: Milk was a public screening at the Lighthouse in Petone where I witnessed a new low in audience talking-through-the-movie behaviour. Gah! Valkyrie was at the Empire in Island Bay where (unusually for them) I had to go out and ask them focus it. The auditorium hadn’t been cleaned either. Must have been a busy day. Let the Right One In was at the Paramount and the snowy vistas betray the complete difference in light quality between projector one and two (no platters at the Paz). Hunger was in the same venue during the Festival, six months ago. Sparkle was a skipping DVD lent by the Paramount – it was their backup so I hope they never have to use it. Sex Drive was a public screening at Readings where I witnessed a new low in audience putting-your-bare-feet-on-the-seat-in-front behaviour. Yuk!
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.
A Mighty Heart is an arms-length version of the true story of the Karachi kidnapping and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl in the aftermath of 9/11. Actually, arms-length isn’t a terribly fair description: it starts that way but slowly reels you in thanks to assured direction from Michael Winterbottom and good performances from an ensemble cast led by Angelina Jolie.
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.
Full disclosure: I have known Ant Timpson (producer of The Devil Dared Me To) since 1994 when I did publicity for the first Incredibly Strange Film Festival and I look after the Wellington leg of the 48 Hours Furious Filmmaking Challenge which Ant has run since 2003. The 1st AD on Devil was Jeremy Anderson, who has been a very close friend and Black Caps fan for nearly 18 years. He is a top man and I’m stoked to see his work on the big screen. If you need a 1st, give him a call.