It’s American election year and those mealy-mouthed Hollywood liberals have fired the first shot in their attempt to influence the result. In The Campaign, Will Ferrell plays Will Ferrell playing a four-term US congressman from a district so safe district no one will run against him. The mysterious Moch brothers – John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd – are billionaire industrialists (loosely and lazily based on the nefarious real-life Koch Brothers) who decide to bankroll another candidate, one who will be more easily influenced by their money and power. It’s hard to imagine anyone more easily bought than Ferrell’s Cam Brady but evidently it’s time for a change and they place their bets on lovable local tourism boss Zach Galifianakis, playing another of his trademarked limp-wristed-but-heterosexual naifs.
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.
Back in 1984, Russell Mulcahy made Razorback, the tale of a giant mutant pig terrorising a small outback town, and his next film is going to be about a man turned into a koala by an ancient aboriginal curse, both of which make Resident Evil 3: Extinction look like Anna Karenina. You don’t need to have seen the previous two Resident Evil films or played the video game (I hadn’t) as the plot is pretty simple: zombies = bad; supermodels = good; genetic engineering = very bad (unless you are genetically engineering supermodels which = very good). Stoic action-hero Milla Jovovich is photographed using the Chanel filter whenever she isn’t slicing up the un-dead and the film is entertaining when there’s action and tedious when there isn’t.
In Fracture, hotshot young actor Ryan Gosling plays a hotshot young Deputy DA, about to make the leap to a big-time corporate gig but first he has to convict Anthony Hopkins who has just shot his wife in the head. Now, IANAL but Fracture seems pretty shonky from a procedural and legal point of view. Can the LA County court system really send an attempted murderer to trial less than a fortnight after the offence? I doubt it, but that condensed time-frame is vital for Goslings’ character motivation and therefore the rest of the plot, so best to turn a blind-eye to the detail and focus on two great screen actors enjoying themselves.
Film of the week by some distance is Away From Her by the sublimely gifted Sarah Polley. In snowy Ontario Julie Christie is Fiona, a woman struggling with the onset of Alzheimers Disease. Husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent) seems to be struggling even more, however, and when she decides to go in to residential care he feels that, perhaps, he is being punished by her for past transgressions.
Christie is sensational but the revelation for me is Pinsent, a living legend in Canada but rarely seen elsewhere. His is an extraordinary performance, fully investing his character with all of the painful mash of love, loss and guilt that Polley’s eloquently spare script requires. His raw and confused emotions are not just etched in his craggy face but into his ever-moistening eyes.
Glenn Standring’s Perfect Creature is a respectable genre effort, although devoid of much originality. In a steampunk-flavoured alternative reality New Zealand, genetically engineered vampires known as Brothers control society via religion. When one of their order goes berko and starts eating citizens, the supposedly delicate balance between the species/races/whatever is threatened. Deputy Brother Silus (Dougray Scott) teams up with the cheekbones of Detective Lilly (Saffron Burrows) to bring the fiend to justice.
One of the most startling career re-inventions of recent times must belong to screenwriter Steven Knight who until 2002 was a TV hack best known for being Jasper Carrott’s chief gag-man and creator of Who Wants To be a Millionaire? The script for the excellent Dirty Pretty Things launched his feature career and he now delves even deeper in to the seedy underbelly of gangland London with Eastern Promises, starring Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts. Watts plays a London hospital midwife and (helpfully) daughter of a Russian. A young girl dies in childbirth on her watch but the diary she was carrying provides a clue to her identity and leads Watts to the Russian mafia kingpin (Armin Mueller-Stahl), his nutjob son (Vincent Cassell) and the son’s driver (Viggo). Director Cronenberg steers us through the murk effectively enough and there’s one thrilling set-piece in a turkish bath which confirms his talent for cinematic violence (if it was ever in doubt). Final irony: the three Russians are played by a German, a Frenchman and a Dane.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 31 October, 2007.
Notes on screening conditions: Away From Her was screened in Penthouse One and the shutter timing is still out and getting worse. There are also signs of damage to the screen (from something behind it?) on the right-hand side. It was also the most uncomfortable seat I have sat in this year. This is all a bit of a shame as Penthouse Three (the new one) is perfectly fine but it looks like standards aren’t being maintained everywhere.