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burn after reading

2008 comes to an end

By Cinema

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.

No Country for Old Men posterThe “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.

Tropic Thunder posterIf 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.

The Edge of Heaven posterI made plenty of suc­cess­ful vis­its to the art­house this year. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was awe­some; The Edge of Heaven quietly enthralling; Irina Palm was sur­pris­ing. My review says I liked After the Wedding but I hardly remem­ber a thing about it. Also get­ting the art­house tick from me: The Counterfeiters, The Band’s Visit, the delight­ful hymn to tol­er­ance Grow Your Own and the glossy romance The Painted Veil.

Worthy indies that gave me faith in the future of US cinema included Ben Affleck’s Boston-thriller Gone Baby Gone; Ryan Gosling in love with a sex toy (Lars and the Real Girl); twee little Juno; nasty (in a good way) Choke; heart­warm­ing The Visitor and Frozen River (which was the best of the lot).

Space Chimps posterMainstream 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.

Interview: Richard Jenkins

By Cinema and Interview

It isn’t online at the Cap Times, so I thought I would archive my inter­view with The Visitor star, Richard Jenkins here. I spoke with Richard by phone last Sunday morning.

***

"My drumming sucks!" - Richard Jenkins in The Visitor

My drum­ming sucks” – Richard Jenkins in The Visitor

Best known to New Zealand audi­ences as the deceased pat­ri­arch of the Fisher fam­ily in television’s “Six Feet Under”, Richard Jenkins has had a steady career in movies over the last 25 years, often in unsung sup­port­ing roles, but this year he has really left a mark.

Speaking to the Capital Times from his home in Rhode Island, Jenkins gave thanks to Thomas McCarthy, cre­at­or of 2004’s sleep­er hit The Station Agent, for hav­ing faith in him des­pite his lack of mar­quee pres­ence. “He asked me to read the script and I hadn’t read any­thing I liked more. But I told him, nobody’s going to give you the money with me in it!” But McCarthy per­severed, even when one exec­ut­ive pro­du­cer sug­ges­ted just weeks before shoot­ing that Morgan Freeman might be a more com­mer­cial choice.

2008 has been a great year for Jenkins.  In the sopho­mor­ic buddy com­edy Step Brothers he got to impro­vise scenes about dino­saurs with Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly; he was reunited with The Coen Brothers for Burn After Reading (in a part that was writ­ten for him); and in the sens­it­ive indie he shines as a wid­owed aca­dem­ic brought back from a bound­less depres­sion by a chance New York con­nec­tion with two illeg­al immigrants.

But car­ry­ing a film on his shoulders was a new exper­i­ence.  “I always wondered what it would be like, you know? Could I do it? But most of all, I didn’t want to let Tom down.” He needn’t have wor­ried, as his per­form­ance anchors a typ­ic­ally humane McCarthy film about strangers thrown togeth­er and learn­ing to appre­ci­ate and then love each other.

Jenkins con­tin­ues to live in tiny Rhode Island where he moved after suc­cess­fully audi­tion­ing for the Trinity Rep theatre com­pany in Providence in 1970. He hap­pily per­formed and dir­ec­ted there for 14 years, even spend­ing four years as act­ing Artistic Director just as his film career was tak­ing off.

The movie work has been so reg­u­lar he hasn’t been on a stage since 1985 but he nev­er anti­cip­ated a film career. ”I’d always loved film but frankly, it was easi­er to go the the moon,” he laughs. “A career is some­thing you look back on rather than some­thing you plan”.

Now he says he enjoys watch­ing theatre more than he ever did (when he was act­ing in it) and tries to catch whatever he can, wherever he may be filming.

At the rate that Jenkins makes films (there are anoth­er four in the can for release next year), the law of aver­ages sug­gests he will be shoot­ing in Wellington before too long and he knows the tal­ent we have to offer, describ­ing work­ing with Niki (Whale Rider) Caro on North Country as his best movie-making exper­i­ence ever.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 3 December, 2008.

Review: Burn After Reading, Body of Lies and The Duchess

By Cinema and Reviews

Oh, what kind of year is 2008 that has two Coen Brothers films with­in it? In February I was swoon­ing over No Country for Old Men and now, just a few short months later, I’ve been treated to Burn After Reading, a scath­ing and bit­ter com­edy about mod­ern American ignor­ance. It’s a vicious, sav­age, des­pair­ing and bril­liant farce: full of won­der­ful char­ac­ters who are at the same time really awful people.

John Malkovich is Osbourne Cox, a failed CIA ana­lyst who loses a disk con­tain­ing his mem­oirs. It’s found by Hardbodies gym staff Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt, who decide to black­mail him so that she can pay for some unne­ces­sary cos­met­ic pro­ced­ures. Meanwhile (and there’s a lot of mean­whiles), Malkovich’s wife (Tilda Swinton) is hav­ing an affair with sex addict George Clooney, who is cheat­ing on her, and his wife, with Internet one night stands (that include the lonely McDormand). The disk ends up at the Russian Embassy, Pitt ends up in the Chesapeake and the only truly nice per­son in the whole film ends up with a hatchet in his head.

It’s no acci­dent that this col­lec­tion of men­tal and spir­itu­al pyg­mies can be found pop­u­lat­ing Washington D.C. Over the last eight years it has become the world centre of incom­pet­ence, venal­ity, short-sightedness and polit­ic­al expedi­ence and the film plays as an enraged satire about the end of the American Empire. We can only hope.

The self-indulgent part­ner­ship between Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe gets anoth­er trot out in Body of Lies, a laboured action-thriller about anti-terrorism in the Middle East. Half-decent Leonardo DiCaprio is the lead. He plays hon­our­able field agent Roger Ferris, hunt­ing the Osama-like Al Saleem from Iraq to Jordan via Amsterdam and Langley. Crowe spends most of the film coach­ing DiCaprio via cell­phone and a good olé boy Southern accent. The twist in this film is that he is a boor­ish, ignor­ant, arrog­ant oaf who fails to appre­ci­ate that win­ning hearts and minds is essen­tial to win the war on ter­ror: DiCaprio’s char­ac­ter, an arab­ic speak­er with an appre­ci­ation for the region and its people, is con­tinu­ally being hung out to dry by his bosses who simply don’t think the Middle East is worth any­thing more than the oil that lies beneath it.

Unfortunately for Body of Lies (a ter­rible, mean­ing­less title), the whole film is thick with cliché and while Scott’s eye for a set-piece remains keen his ear for dia­logue is still made of tin.

Another ter­rible noth­ing title (but for a bet­ter film) is The Duchess. A naïve young Spencer girl is plucked from Althorp to marry a power­ful older man. She soon finds that it is not a love match and that her emo­tion­ally closed off hus­band sees her as a baby fact­ory while he enjoys life with his mis­tress. Our heroine uses her celebrity to bring atten­tion to polit­ic­al causes and falls in love with a hand­some young man, but hap­pi­ness and free­dom is always too far away. Sounds famil­i­ar, I know, but this story isn’t set in the 1990’s but in the 18th cen­tury and this Spencer isn’t Diana, but her eer­ily sim­il­ar ancest­or Georgiana (Keira Knightley).

Knightley is fine as the spir­ited, but even­tu­ally broken, young woman; Ralph Fiennes has good moments as the bru­tish Duke of Devonshire and Charlotte Rampling deliv­ers anoth­er icy turn as Georgiana’s cal­cu­lat­ing moth­er. The Duchess is a fine his­tory les­son with some nice obser­va­tions: my favour­ite is the paparazzi at every social occa­sion, pen­cils sharpened to sketch the scan­dals as they unfold.

Sadly, I have been too busy in recent weeks to pre­view any of the titles in this year’s Italian Film Festival but the pro­gramme looks a good and inter­est­ing one as always. The films in the Italian Festival have always leaned towards the com­mer­cial and this year is no dif­fer­ent. Crowd pleas­ing com­ed­ies like The Littlest Thing rub shoulders with romances like Kiss Me Baby, dra­mas (The Unknown Woman) and thrillers: Secret Journey. My pick looks like it could be a com­bin­a­tion of all those genres, the romantic black com­edy Night Bus. Moving to the Embassy this year should do the event the power of good but it’s a pity about the poorly proofed pro­gramme though.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 15 October, 2008.

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: All three films were screened at the Empire in Island Bay. Body of Lies and The Duchess were at pub­lic screen­ings and Burn After Reading was the Sunday night print check (for staff), so thanks to the Empire people for invit­ing me to that.