Between its heralded US release in September last year and its arrival in a (very) limited number of New Zealand cinemas this weekend, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master seems to have been transformed from masterpiece and annointed Best Picture contender to also-ran, disappointing scores of local PTA fans in the process, many of whom were crushed that we weren’t going to see the film in the director’s preferred 70mm format. Turns out it was touch and go whether we were going to see it on the big screen at all.
Anderson’s previous film, There Will Be Blood, was a close-run second to No Country For Old Men in my 2007 pick of the year, and his back catalogue is as rich as anyone else of his generation – Boogie Nights, Magnolia and even Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love. Like Blood, The Master is painted on a big canvas. Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, an alcoholic and self-hating WWII veteran, stumbling between misadventures when he stows away on the San Francisco yacht commanded by academic, author and mystic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd combines rudimentary psychotherapy with hypnosis to persuade gullible followers that their past lives can be used to transform their disappointing present.
Back in the 70s, when I was about 8 years old, I watched a film on TV called Silent Running. In it Bruce Dern and three little robots tended the remains of Earth’s plant life on a giant greenhouse spaceship floating somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. I cried so much at the shocking ending (which had lonely robot Dewey, tending the forest with a battered watering can while the last of Earth’s flora drifted toward the edge of the solar system) that I don’t think I’ve ever been the same again. Last year, I rented the DVD to see if it had the same effect more than 30 years later and, sure enough, I dissolved on cue. Remarkable.
Pixar’s new animated triumph WALL•E owes a great deal to Silent Running, not least it’s dystopic view of human-planet interaction but also the faith in the healing power of anthropomorphic cuboid robots. WALL•E is the last functioning maintenance robot on an abandoned Earth, tidying up the enormous mountains of garbage left behind 700 years previously by the cowardly human population who ran for the stars. Lonely, without really knowing what lonely means, our hero meets EVE, a brilliant (as in shiny) search robot looking for signs of organic life. When she discovers some, and leaves to report back, WALL•E hitches a ride and ultimately finds himself saving civilisation.
It was perhaps a little too long for the restless pre-schoolers I shared a screening with, but for anyone and everyone else I whole-heartedly recommend it. And it won’t make you cry so much you throw up.
Regular readers will know that I have been quite the cheerleader for the new digital 3D technology (the U2 concert was stunning). Sadly, the first “live action” film to be produced using the process, Journey to the Centre of the Earth 3D, is still more of a side-show stunt than a test of the artistic potential of the technology. Brendan Fraser plays a geologist whose brother was lost on an exploration in some Icelandic caves and when he discovers secret coded notes in his brother’s dog-eared copy of the Jules Verne book, he decides to recreate the expedition, taking his nephew (plus last week’s CT cover girl Anita Briem) along for the ride.
Alister Barry is one of Wellington’s living treasures. His meticulously researched documentaries (including Someone Else’s Country and In a Land of Plenty) have successfully shone a light on the political and economic changes in New Zealand since the ‘new right’ transformation of the mid-80s in a way that nobody in the mainstream media has even attempted. His new film is based on Nicky Hager’s explosive exposé of shoddy National Party campaigning, The Hollow Men, and it’s interesting to me that the real-life footage of Don Brash presents a considerably less sympathetic portrait of the man than Stephen Papps’ excellent performance in the stage version at BATS. The leaked emails from Hager’s book revealed so many shenanigans that it’s hard to keep the story straight but Barry does a good job of emphasising that it is essentially the same team running National this time around.
I was lucky enough to preview the gorgeous BBC nature documentary, Earth, at the Embassy during the Festival and I’m pleased to see it return there for a short season. Unlike the tedious and repetitive ice doco The White Planet, this film uses the whole planet as a canvas for some marvellous images and, like WALL•E, the message is that we are stuffing it up at an alarming rate. Only the cutest animals and most colourful plants got through the auditions and Patrick Stewart plays the Morgan Freeman part as narrator.
After dismal experiences with Will Ferrell’s recent ice-skating and basketball films I wasn’t looking forward to Step Brothers, a low brow reunitement (new word!) with Talladega Nights co-star John C. Reilly, but blow me down I really enjoyed it! Ferrell and Reilly play two 40-year-old men, living at home, whose solo parents meet and marry each other, making them, you guessed it Step Brothers. It’s a 90 minute riff on one joke but you have to admire their total commitment to it.
Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging was made for teenage girls and I (despite my best efforts) am not one but, even though I lack the required cultural filters, I can’t understand why teenage girls would want to be portrayed as such shallow, tedious, screeching harpies. Boys, make-up, boys, the right kind of underwear, boys again. If these are our future leaders then I despair. Crikey, was Helen Clark like this when she was 14?
Profound, sensitive, emotionally arduous and perfectly structured, 4 Months follows a day in the life of student Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) as she selflessly tries to organise an abortion for her light headed friend Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), while fending off the attentions of family and boyfriend. As close to perfect as makes no difference.
Printed (for the most part) in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 24 September, 2008. Except for Earth, Step Brothers, Angus, Thongs, etc. and 4 Months which were cut for space.
Arguably, the most important film of the year so far opens this week: Rain of the Children restores Vincent Ward’s reputation as a singular cinema artist, after the desperate travails of River Queen, and uses the essential New Zealand story of Rua Kenana and the Tuhoe resistance as vivid background to a universal story of parenthood and loss.
In this film Ward returns to the subject of his first documentary, In Spring One Plants Alone, a film he made as a naïve 21 year old back in 1979. In that film we watched as 80 year old Puhi attempted to care for her last child, the mentally ill Niki. In Rain, Ward tells Puhi’s whole story – from her Urewera childhood, marriage to the prophet Rua’s son, and then the tragedies that bore down upon her until she (and the rest of her community) considered herself cursed.
The full emotional impact took a while to register with me – long enough that the tears didn’t start until half way through the credits. I’d need to see it again before making the call about “masterpiece” or not, but it certainly felt like that, standing numb in the Wellington rain after the Film Festival screening.
I don’t know what I did to deserve the dubious pleasure of two Brendan Fraser action flicks in two days, but I can’t say I’m all that grateful. Journey to the Centre of the Earth will get it’s review next week but as for The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor the less said the better. The discovery of an abandoned tomb full of relics in western China brings Fraser and Maria Bello (subbing for Rachel Weisz) out of retirement just in time for the magical Eye of Shangri-La to bring evil Emperor Han (Jet Li) back to life. Li has never been the most expressive of actors and, luckily for him, he spends most of the film under a computer-generated mask of stone. It’s what we used to call a romp and is so stuffed with ‘stuff’ that it’s hard to argue that you don’t get your money’s worth, even if it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.
Taken is highly effective, first-rate pulp starring Liam Neeson in the kind of role that Charles Bronson or Lee Marvin might have played back in the day. Neeson isn’t as cool as Marvin, but that’s ok as, by choosing to play his characters faults as well as his strengths, he gives the audience something to connect with (amidst all the violence and mayhem). He plays a retired spy, trying to reconnect with his family who have started over without him. A bit like De Niro in the Fockers films, he’s over-protective, cynical and paranoid but when his daughter is kidnapped by white slavers about an hour after arriving in Paris all his fears come true and only he can do the required rescuing.
Son of Rambow pushes plenty of my 80s English nostalgia-buttons (”Screen Test”, cinemas split into smoking and non-smoking sections, Space Dust & Coke cocktails) but, despite that, I never quite managed to fall in love with it. 10 year old Plymouth Brethren-ite, Will (Bill Milner) discovers Stallone’s First Blood via pirate video and is persuaded by school terror Lee Carter (Will Poulter) to be the stuntman in his VHS-cam tribute. Too reliant on the fatherless-child cliché for its drama, and cartoon whimsy for its comedy, Son of Rambow never quite reaches the heights promised by its central idea.
There’s plenty of excellent drama still to be mined from the Holocaust, as Un Secret (from France) and Austrian Oscar winner The Counterfeiters prove. In the first film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’s Mathieu Amalric searches Paris for his father, while in flashback, he searches his family history for something to explain his own life. There are plenty of secrets to choose from, and one of the pleasures of the film is trying to work out which one is the secret of the title.
While Un Secret focuses on a family’s attempts to stay out of the camps, The Counterfeiters locks us inside with the inmates of Sachsenhausen and it’s a hell of a thing. Karl Markovics plays professional forger Sally Sorowitsch, enlisted by the Nazis to provide expert assistance for their attempts to flood the Allied economy with fake banknotes. Sally sees it as his opportunity to avoid the gas chambers but not everyone on the team shares his single-minded devotion to survival and he is forced to engage with his own lack of idealism.
Markovics’ remarkable cheekbones provide excellent architecture to inspire Benedict Neuenfels’ superb high contrast cinematography and The Counterfeiters is gripping, moving and provocative throughout.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 17 September, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: For once, little to complain about. Rain of the Children as intimated in the body copy, was at a packed Film Festival matinée at the Embassy; The Mummy was also at the Embassy, although more recently, Taken was at Readings 2, courtesy of a pass from Fox, Son of Rambow (which was the cause of some consternation last week) was a torrent; Un Secret was screened from a preview DVD from Hoyts Distribution (due to the already alluded to Penthouse problems) and The Counterfeiters was in the big room at the Paramount where it was a little too quiet (not the end of the world with subtitles) and the print had definitely been around the block a few times.