It’s nice to be reminded every now and then that going to to the movies is supposed to be fun. The first Kung Fu Panda film was a boisterous and entertaining treat (“resembles an eight-year-old’s bedroom while they are throwing all their toys around” I said in 2008) and the latest version is an improvement on that, adding a layer of sentiment to the amusing hijinks. It also trucks along for a nothing-wasted 91 minutes and should keep adults and not-yet-adults well and truly amused.
Panda Po (Jack Black) became the unlikely Dragon Warrior in the first film and now has rock star status among the anthropomorphic citizenry. Along with allies “The Five”, he defends the innocent from tyranny in between (and often during) meals. A new technology and a shadowy figure from Po’s past threaten the peace and force our hero to grapple with the strangely unanswered questions about his childhood and how a panda came to be adopted by a goose in the first place.
Eat Pray Love is what they used to call, in the old days, a “women’s picture” and the advertisers who have paid good money to annoy audiences before the film make sure you know it: feminine hygiene products. A chromosomal anomaly on my part means that I’m not in the target market for this film (or the bestselling book that inspired it) but I’ll give it a go. Manfully.
Julia Roberts plays Liz, a phenomenally bad playwright and (supposedly) successful author who has a crisis and ends her (supposedly) unsatisfactory marriage to bewildered and hurt Billy Crudup. Never having lived without a man in her life she goes straight into a relationship with handsome and spiritual young actor James Franco.
Still unhappy, and a source of enormous frustration to her ethnically diverse best friend Viola Davis (Doubt), she uses her share of the Crudup divorce to take a year off and find herself – Italy for the food, India for the guru and Bali for Javier Bardem.
And there’s this hideous thing they make you do when you go up for a television show: they make you sign a contract before you walk into the final audition. The last thing they want is for you to have everyone fall in love with you, and then you not have a deal in place. So you sign this thing – and I had no money; I was broke. You’re staring at the five-figure pay cheque you’ll get… if… If! A crazy amount of money for someone who has none. So I was thinking: I’ll pay my loans off and do this and that and maybe get my car fixed… and by that time they’re calling you in, you’re like: ‘Shit! I have to do the scene! What the fuck are the lines?’ I would get hung up on that stuff and be an utter failure in the room.”
Hamm displays an admirable amount of self-awareness in this interview, promoting his new feature film The Town (directed by Ben Affleck). Part of Hamm’s success as Don Draper is the tiny amount of “I can’t quite believe this is happening to me” he manages to project.
Compelled once again by Christmas deadlines to sum up the year in cinema, I have been thinking a lot about how some movies stay with you and some don’t, how some movies have got average reviews from me this year but have grown in my affections, and how there are some films you want to see again and some you’re not so bothered about – even when you admire them.
So I’m going to divide my year up in to the following categories: Keepers are films I want to own and live with. Films I can expect to watch once a year – or force upon guests when I discover they haven’t already been seen. Repeats are films I wouldn’t mind seeing again – renting or borrowing or stumbling across on tv. Enjoyed are films I enjoyed (obviously) and respected but am in no hurry to watch again.
The “keepers” won’t come as any great surprise: The Coen’s No Country for Old Men and PT Anderson’s There Will Be Blood were both stone-cold American masterpieces. NCFOM just about shades it as film of the year but only because I haven’t yet watched TWBB a second time. Vincent Ward’s Rain of the Children was the best New Zealand film for a very long time, an emotional epic. Apollo doco In the Shadow of the Moon moved and inspired me and I want to give it a chance to continue to do so by keeping it in my house. Finally, two supremely satisfying music films: I could listen to Todd Haynes’ Dylan biopic I’m Not There. again and again, and watching it was was much funnier than I expected. Not minding the music of U2, I didn’t have a big hump to get over watching their 3D concert movie, but what a blast it was! Immersive and involving, it was the first truly great digital 3D experience. For the time being you can’t recreate the 3D experience at home so I hold out for a giant cinema screen of my own to watch it on.
Next layer down are the films I wouldn’t mind watching again, either because I suspect there are hidden pleasures to be revealed or because a second viewing will confirm or deny suspected greatness. Gritty Romanian masterpiece 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days has stayed with me since I saw it in March. Be Kind Rewind was rich enough (and good-hearted enough) to deserve another look. Martin McDonagh’s bizarre hitman fantasy In Bruges rocked along at such a decent clip I need to see it again to make sure I didn’t miss any of it’s eccentric pleasures. I liked and respected the Coen’s other 2008 entry Burn After Reading more than every other critic so a second viewing would be useful, if only to confirm that I appreciated it better than everyone else did… Or not.
If I could just clip the Robert Downey Jr. bits from Tropic Thunder it would be a keeper, instead I look forward to seeing it again over Christmas. The same goes for the entire first act of WALL•E which I could watch over and over again. Sadly the film lost some of that magic when it got in to space (though it remains a stunning achievement all the same).
Into the “Enjoy” category: Of the documentaries released to cinemas this year, three stood out. The affectionate portrait of Auckland theatre-maker Warwick Broadhead, Rubbings From a Live Man, was moving and its strangeness was perfectly appropriate. Up the Yangtze showed us a China we couldn’t see via the Olympics juggernaut and Young at Heart is still playing and shouldn’t be missed.
Mainstream Hollywood wasn’t a complete waste of space this year (although the ghastly cynical rom-coms 27 Dresses and Made of Honour would have you believe otherwise). Ghost Town was the best romantic comedy of the year; The Dark Knight and Iron Man were entertaining enough; I got carried away by Mamma Mia and the showstopping performance by Meryl Streep; Taken was energetic Euro-pulp; Horton Hears a Who! and Madagascar 2 held up the kid-friendly end of the deal (plus a shout-out for the under-appreciated Space Chimps) and, of course, Babylon A.D. (just kidding, but I did enjoy it’s campy insanity).
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 31 December, 2008.
Note that I deliberately avoid choosing Festival-only films as directing people towards films they can’t easily see is just cruel.
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.
This week Wellington gets a chance to farewell one of the titans of world cinema, an inspiration to many, derided by a few; an icon who walked his own idiosyncratic path. I am, of course, talking about Rocky Balboa, kind-hearted dim-bulb and possessor of one of the great loves in cinema: his adoration of Adrian (Talia Shire) remains undiminished even though her cancer left him a widower a few years between Rocky V and this new one.
The Rocky of I and II was always a great character, led astray during the blockbuster years, and Rocky Balboa gives him back to us. It’s well written and self-aware and, as a bonus, there’s hardly any boxing in it.
Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion is too nice a film to divide people the way that it does. Having said that, if you are one of those people who switches off National Radio whenever genial raconteur Garrison Keiller Keillor introduces his legendary live radio show then you will find the film version an awful trial. Thrown together in typically-Altman, ramshackle, style and shot, it appears, with no more than half an eye on the finished product, APHC is a delightful, wistful, appreciation of community, nostalgia and the passing of time, the finality of things if you will. It’s only fitting that Altman’s final film, shot while he was riddled with the cancer that would kill him, should be about letting go. I loved it, but then I was probably always going to.
In HollywoodlandBen Affleck is perfect as wooden actor George Reeves who found fame as television’s first, portly, Superman in the 1950s but who ended up dead of apparently self-inflicted gunshot wounds after a failed attempt at a comeback. The film brings life to the persistent rumours that Reeves’ death was the result of foul play – courtesy of a jealous husband with friends in Hollywood high places.
Adrien Brody plays a fictional gumshoe on the trail of the mystery and the film tries hard to ride the coat-tails of classics like Chinatown but is too darn slow to keep up, even though it looks the part.
Will Ferrell plays a slightly less demented version of his usual emotionally-retarded man-child in Stranger Than Fiction, a slender but likeable fantasy about a man who discovers he is a character in a novel being written by Emma Thompson. It’s her voice in his head, narrating his life, and no one else can hear it. This is annoying and inexplicable at first, but gets serious when he discovers she wants to kill him off. Chicago looks great (and so does Maggie Gyllenhaal).
Raucous kiwi documentary Squeegee Bandit follows Auckland street-corner window washer “Starfish” around for a few months, getting to know him, his transitory life and his turf. There’s some interesting meat buried inside this film but the MTV editing, bothersome soundtrack and general noise levels make it harder than it should be to get at. It’s an interesting documentary but difficult to recommend as entertainment.
The Last King of Scotland is a fictionalised portrait of Idi Amin, dictator of Uganda from 1971 to 1979 and self-appointed “Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular”. To fully appreciate Forest Whitaker’s superb performance check out the real Idi’s eyes in the archive footage at the end of the film and you can see the genuine bat-shit insane paranoia of the man.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 14 February, 2007.