Expat Kiwi auteur Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) somehow always manages to tap in to the zeitgeist and with new sci-fi thriller In Time his own timing is almost spookily perfect. A parable about the modern political economy, In Time isn’t a particularly sophisticated analysis but while protestors occupy Wall Street, St Paul’s in London and the City to Sea Bridge here in Wellington, it seems almost perfectly calculated to provoke a big Fuck You! to the bankers, speculators and hoarders who are rapidly becoming the Hollywood villains we love to hate.
In Niccol’s world, several decades into the future, time is literally money: human beings have been genetically modified to stop (physically) ageing at 25. Which would be lovely apart from the fact that a clock on your writst then starts counting down the one year you have left to live and the time on your wrist becomes currency. You can earn more by working, transfer it to others by shaking hands, borrow more from banks and loan sharks or you can spend it on booze to blot out the horror of your pathetic little life.
Keira Knightley may only be 23 but (along with Daniel Craig and Simon Pegg) she’s been given the unenviable job of saving the British film industry, a challenging task for someone with talent but a hard road for a young woman still learning a craft for which she often seems ill-suited. Next week we will review the mid-budget costume drama The Duchess but right now she is headlining another WWII romance (c.f. Atonement), John Maybury’s The Edge of Love.
Knightley plays Vera Phillips, a young Welsh girl carving out a living entertaining the troops in the underground bomb shelters of burnt out London. In an awfully clunky screenwriting moment she sees a familiar face across a crowded pub and calls out “Dylan? Dylan Thomas?” and is reunited with her childhood sweetheart. After plenty of flirting, the soon-to-be great poet Thomas (Matthew Rhys) introduces her to his wife Caitlin (Sienna Miller) and a firm friendship begins, a friendship that veers in the direction of a (hinted at) ménage à trois and ends (with the help of Phillips’ shell-shocked husband Cillian Murphy) in a hail of misdirected bullets on a picturesque Welsh cliff top.
Miller’s notorious tabloid existence has a tendency to overshadow her day job, which is a shame as she is very good here and she carries almost all the emotional weight of a film that, frankly, needs all the help it can get. Rhys is fine (and reads the Thomas poetry like he’s channelling Richard Burton) but Knightley struggles, although she has her moments.
In The Orphanage, a woman (Belén Rueda) and her husband (Fernando Cayo) decide to buy the decaying old gothic orphanage where she grew up so they can live there with their adopted, HIV-positive, young son (Roger Princep) plus his imaginary friends. Asking for trouble? You bet. The boy soon disappears, perhaps into a cave beneath the house, and the distraught mother has to solve the mystery of the cursed house before she can find him again.
I would have been considerably more effected by this film if the first half hadn’t been out of focus (and if the projectionist hadn’t forgotten about the reel change or needed to be told to focus the second half) but once we’d got all that sorted out the moody atmospherics (greatly aided by an effective surround sound design and the excellent Paramount sound system) push all the right buttons. Produced by Guilermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), The Orphanage is stylish horror with a heart. I much prefer this sort of thing to the Japanese productionline versions we see so often.
It’s really saying something when a director disowns a Vin Diesel film for not living up to his vision but this is what Mathieu Kassovitz has done with Babylon A.D. Apparently studio-dictated cuts have turned his subtle and sensitive political and moral allegory into a bloodthirsty shoot ’em up. As they saying goes, yeah right. Freely ripping off dozens of hit films (from Escape from New York to Blade Runner, The Matrix and Resident Evil), the cuts have rendered what might have been a campy classic into incoherence but it’s not un-entertaining.
My favourite cinematic shark is Bruce from Finding Nemo (played by Barry Humphries), a misunderstood killing machine with abandonment issues. If he’d seen Rob Stewart’s enervating documentary Sharkwater he would know that he’s not a killer at all – more people die each year as a result of Coke machine misadventure – and that he is in far greater peril from us than the other way around.
In fact the whole film owes a lot to Pixar’s Nemo, often recreating famous images from that film and, if it wasn’t likely to traumatise them, I’d recommend every child who ever saw Nemo be forced to sit and watch it so they might turn into passionate eco-terrorists when they grow up.
As agit-prop doco makers go I think I prefer Morgan Spurlock to Michael Moore. Spurlock (who sprang to fame with the McDonalds’ exposé Super Size Me in 2004) interviews people without setting them up to look stupid or venal and his everyman open-ness gives the impression that he is genuinely curious rather than embittered and certain. In Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? Spurlock is spurred by the his long- suffering girlfriend Alex’s pregnancy to go the middle east and find out why they want to kill us all. And if he finds Osama Bin Laden in the process, all well and good. I could have done with less of the cheesy video game analysis of complex global politics but when Spurlock goes out of his way to meet ordinary people on the streets of Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, Pakistan and Afghanistan you can’t help but feel a little bit enlightened and a little bit heartened.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 8 October, 2008.
Nothing of note to report regarding screening conditions except the problems with The Orphanage that have already been reported above.
UPDATE: A friend wrote to me after reading the Sharkwater review in the CT:
“I don’t think much of your Sharkwater review. It really doesn’t tell anyone what the film is about and why people should see it, and secondly you totally belittle the issue by comparing it to a kids cartoon! It’s the most disturbing film I’ve seen all year, and as you know I’ve seen quite a lot. Even now I feel utterly guilty eating fish, though it is the only animal flesh I can’t seem to give up. At least the Lumiere reviewer urged people to boycott the many Wellington restaurants that serve shark fin soup. The director is slightly irritating I admit, but the content is crucial… you can’t joke about films like this, unless it’s garbage (like Where in the World is OBL for example…).
And so, after 191 films viewed and reviewed here I get to sum up the 2007 cinema year. As I said back in September it’s been a great year for good films but a poor year for truly great ones. Even my (obviously unimpeachable) Top Ten list contains only a few that I think will be regarded as classics in 20 years but these are all films that I’d happily see again or even own on DVD if the chance arises.
Best of the year turns out to be the most recent: Sean Penn’s Into the Wild is the real deal. As beautiful to look at and listen to as the finest art film, but remaining down to earth, it features a star-making performance from Emile Hirsch leading an ensemble of fine screen actors and it ultimately delivers a message that is completely different to the one you expect: He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.
The next two selections are also notable for being the lowest-grossing films of the year: the mesmerising Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait followed one man around a football pitch for an entire match and the wondrous and glowing aboriginal film Ten Canoes reminded us that great story-telling can be found anywhere, from the camp fire to the multiplex. The finest performances of the year from grown-ups were found in Sarah Polley’s Away From Her. Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie were a couple reeling from the impact of Alzheimer’s: the pressure of the disease slowly unravelling a relationship that on the surface seemed so pure. Best performance of the year from anyone was little Kolya Spiridonov as “orphan” Vanya in The Italian, determined to find his Mother wherever she may be rather than go to the west with new parents.
Best documentary turned out to be the unpromising Deep Water: a film about a yacht race that ended up being about the deepest, darkest secrets kept by a fragile human soul – it was even better second time around. Atonement was a sweeping and romantic drama showcasing the many skills of the latest generation of British movie craftspeople, not least director Joe Wright who, annoyingly, is only 36 years old. Best local film in an uneven year (and justifiably in this Top Ten) is Taika Waititi’s Eagle vs. Shark: funny and sweet and sad and the product of a singular vision rather than the committee that seems to produce so many New Zealand films.
My favourite commercial film of the year was the sweet-natured and very funny Knocked Up about a slacker and a career-girl getting to grips with responsibility, relationships and parenthood: He tangata, he tangata, he tangata once again. Finally, I’ve spent all year trying to justify leaving Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver out of this Top Ten with no luck whatsoever: the complete lack of flaws of any kind mean it gets in despite the fact that I didn’t love it like I did some others.
It’s a tough time for local paper film reviewers around the world. Cinema critics from publications like the Village Voice have been given the flick by penny-pinching publishers and even the Sunday Star-Times in Auckland has started running film reviews from sister papers in Australia rather than pay someone locally to represent you. So, I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to watch all these films on your behalf and want to thank the Capital Times for indulging my desire to cover everything rather than a select few releases. Thanks, also, to all the Wellington cinemas who have graciously hosted me despite my fairly constant bitching about standards. But, above all, thank you for reading. See you next year.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday January 2, 2008.
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.
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.