The best way I can think of to sum up Jobs, the hastily-prepared not-quite adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s hastily-published biography of the Apple co-founder, is that its subject would have hated it. After all, Steve had taste and – famously – exercised it. He also didn’t release products until they were ready whereas Joshua Michael Stern’s film feels like the winner of a race to be first rather than best.
Ashton Kutcher impersonates Mr. Jobs effectively enough, to the extent of mimicking the man’s strange lope, but never gets further under his skin than a blog post or tabloid headline might. I suspect that is not a comment on Mr. Kutcher’s talent but on the episodic script by first-timer Matt Whiteley. Josh Gad’s Woz provides comic relief only and the amount of fake facial hair on offer suggests the film might better have been titled iBeard.
Operating on a much deeper level is Daniel Borgman’s The Weight of Elephants, a film that prioritises what goes on under the surface almost to the complete exclusion of plot. Gorgeous Demos Murphy plays 10-year-old Adrian, living with his depressed Uncle Rory (great Matthew Sunderland) and Gran (Catherine Wilkin) in suburban Invercargill. The strange disappearance of three local children has an upsetting effect on a boy who is struggling to fit in to the world around him anyway.
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.
Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire was my film of the year for 2009 – a potent and punchy roller-coaster ride of a film that made everything for months afterwards seem quaintly old-fashioned. His new film, 127 Hours, doesn’t break the mould to quite the same degree but does feature similar stylistic effects: messing with time and structure, split-screens, domineering soundtrack, etc.
The new film is also an adaptation of previously existing material, Aron Ralston’s memoir “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”, and once again Boyle has collaborated with screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (notorious in New Zealand for The Full Monty). Ralston (played by James Franco) was an engineer by trade but an outdoorsman by inclination and he loved to roam the Utah canyons on bike and on foot. In 2003 he fall into a narrow ravine and his right arm was trapped by a boulder. He was there for five days before realising that the only way he was going to walk out was if he left the arm behind.
Turkish-German director Fatih Akin has long been an arthouse favourite around these parts. Head-On (2004) and The Edge of Heaven (2007) were Festival successes so it was odd to see his new film Soul Kitchen skip this year’s event and go straight to general release. On viewing it’s easy to see why. Akin has gone commercial and Soul Kitchen is as broad a comedy as you’ll find outside the big chains – sadly I have to report that Akin’s film doesn’t sit comfortably in that territory.
Zinos (Adam Bousdoukos) runs a greasy spoon café called the Soul Kitchen in a rundown part of old Hamburg. He’s not much of a cook or a businessman but his loyal customers seem to like it. Thrown into a tizzy by a combination of his girlfriend’s move to China, a very bad back, the tax department, his deadbeat brother (Moritz Bleibtreu) on day release from prison and an old school friend with an eye on his real estate, Zinos tries to navigate his way through a rapidly deteriorating situation with only a genius new chef and some loyal but easily distracted staff.
Ah, the perils of reviewing New Zealand cinema in New Zealand – or even tougher – Wellington cinema in Wellington. How does one approach a film that was executive produced by a former mentor, stars former workmates and drinking buddies, was written by a pal, and features familiar faces in almost every scene (and that this reviewer in a moment of flu-addled weakness even auditioned for)?
Luckily for me, Paul Murphy’s Second Hand Wedding makes it easy to avoid trespassing across the sensibilities of chums and colleagues by being an adorable confection, easy to praise and a pleasure to recommend. The moment you see a little yellow mini screaming around the Kapiti coast (director Paul Murphy’s father Geoff was responsible for Goodbye Pork Pie with Exec Kerry Robins back in 1981) you know you are in good hands and so it proves.
Geraldine Brophy plays Jill Rose, Kapiti’s top garage sale expert. Every Saturday morning you’ll find her (and best mate Muffy broadly played by Tina Regtien) trawling the nick-nacks looking for bargains. Long-suffering hubby Brian (a lovely and understated performance by Patrick Wilson) puts up with all the new paraphernalia because he has his own collection to maintain: all the pieces of a Model T Ford that will one day become a complete car again.
Local mechanic Stew (a performance by Ryan O’Kane that is, perhaps, lacking in detail) has proposed to the Rose’s daughter Cheryl (Holly Shanahan) but, afraid of the bargain basement wedding she fears her mother will provide, she keeps it a secret. When the news breaks, poor Jill is devastated but another tragedy forces the family (and the community) to pull together once again. There’s lots to love about Second Hand Wedding: music by Plan 9 and some songs I wouldn’t mind owning; classy editing particularly in the montages; perfect, witty production design by Brad Mill; but the heart and soul of the film is Brophy’s beautiful and measured performance. If she’s not at the front of the queue when the acting awards are handed out for this year I will be very surprised. Indeed, in this reviewer’s opinion it may be one the five best New Zealand screen performances ever.
It’s slightly depressing to report that a no-budget kiwi comedy contains more subtlety and subtext in any given scene than a multi-million dollar Hollywood blockbuster wrangles in its entirety but it’s true. In What Happens in Vegas… Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz play a couple who meet in Las Vegas on their own individual rebound tours, get hopelessly drunk and hopelessly married on the same night, win $3m on the slots and then try and (with the help of scheming best friends Rob Corddry and Lake Bell) cheat the other out of the booty. Forced by grim Judge Whopper (Dennis Miller) to co-habit for 6 months to prove their marriage is real before he will grant them a divorce, our couple do everything in their power to make each other miserable and much (potential but for the most part unrealised) hilarity ensues.
The problem isn’t with the fitfully amusing leads (though Kutcher in particular appears incapable of playing the deeper notes that father Treat Williams’ paternal disapproval offers him), the film suffers hugely because the script insists on treating us like retards and loudly declaiming everything that it has to say. At one point Kutcher spikes Diaz’s smoothy with ecstacy to the sound of “I Want a New Drug”. Oh, please. Everything is just so flippin’ obvious. Characters say exactly what is in their heads, or exactly what they need to say to move the plot forward, usually both at the same time.
And finally, What Happens in Vegas… should be cursed for indulging in yet another example of Hollywood racism: the only character of colour in the film is a terrible, tight-ass Asian stereotype who is ridiculed relentlessly and mean-ly.