Sometimes this job can really suck all the enjoyment of the movies right out of you. After an extremely agreeable afternoon watching the new Bond film, Skyfall – and making plans to see it again quick-smart – I remembered that before the weekend was out I was going to have to pick holes in it for your entertainment.
And to be honest, I don’t really feel like it. Partly because it’s an extremely entertaining blockbuster popcorn movie, also because it walks the fine line between honouring and reinventing Bond’s 22 film mythology, but mainly because it often becomes a really good proper film with characters and drama and acting and that.
As I write the Telluride Film Festival programme has been released so I had better finish my notes about the journey before I get left behind.
When we left our hero he was sitting in a Motel6 in Denver about to depart for the seven and a half hour drive to Telluride. But first, errands to be run.
I always planned to get a US sim card for my phone so I could continue tweeting etc from the road (and also use the phone for navigation) and got conflicting advice from various people and websites about the beltway to do it. There’s an entire post to be written on how I eventually (sort of) managed it, suffice to say for now it took visits to four different retailers and much driving to finally sort it out. And it doesn’t work in the Telluride town so there’s a constant search for wifi while I’m here.
Of Tone Magazine’s 50 “must own” blu-rays 13 are not actually available in New Zealand legally, or won’t play on NZ purchased players due to region coding. Which is a bit of a waste of time, don’t you think? They also manage to spell Criterion incorrectly right the way through article which adds insult to injury.
After the jump, the list (the article itself is not online):
After destroying much of Venice in the climax to Casino Royale, Daniel Craig as 007 James Bond kicks off Quantum of Solace by having a damn good crack at beautiful renaissance Siena. Picking up almost immediately after he left off following the death of his beloved Vesper, Bond is charging around the world seeking answers and revenge (in no particular order).
Prior viewing of Casino Royale is pretty much mandatory in order to fully appreciate EonEON & Craig’s textbook reinvention of the enigmatic, brutalised, middle-class orphan (with the public school scholarship education) who found a family in the Special Forces and a purpose in life ‘on her majesty’s secret service’. Thankfully Craig has discovered a little sense of humour in the interim but this isn’t a film with time for much reflection.
I think we can safely call a halt to these semi-annual Hulk movies now – the new one is good enough that we can all move on (Ant-Man is evidently next). The Incredible Hulk is Marvel’s attempt to wrestle back the franchise that got away from them under Ang Lee in 2003 and eventually re-unify the Marvel universe under the suave, unstoppable box office force of Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man. To retrieve The Hulk, Marvel cast Hollywood’s weediest leading man, Edward Norton (Fight Club), not realising that Norton also has a reputation as a bit of a meddler who then re-wrote the script and sat in on the editing.
The result, as you might expect, is a bit of a noisy mess, but far from disastrous. After a splendidly condensed opening title sequence which takes us through the back-story of the original experiments that Gamma-ized poor Bruce Banner, we meet him on the run in Brazil, labouring in a bottling plant, taking anger management classes and collaborating online with a mysterious scientist who may hold the key to a cure. Unfortunately for him, the General (a suitably comic-book performance by William Hurt) arrives with a squad to take him home. This makes him angry, of course, and unleashes the green beast within.
If anything, it is more respectful of the TV series than the comic book, featuring cameos from original Hulk Lou Ferrigno and a clunky posthumous cameo from TV Banner Bill Bixby. In fact, looking back on it the film spends more time honouring the past than it does driving into the future, often falling prey to cutesy touches like having Norton Anti-Virus fire up when Banner logs on to a computer. Chief Villain Tim Roth looks like Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, which makes his character name, The Abomination, perfectly apt.
Paul Haggis created the Oscar-winning Crash back in 2004 and, after helping reinvent Bond in Casino Royale, has gone back to the political well with the heartfelt In the Valley of Elah, starring Tommy Lee Jones. Jones plays former Army investigator Hank Deerfield. His son has just returned from Iraq but immediately gone AWOL so Hank travels across Texas to find him. What he discovers shakes his faith in his country and the military and (I’m guessing) is supposed to have some metaphoric weight about the state of the nation and the world and it probably does. I was one of many who found Crash to be appalling, un-watchable, rubbish but Elah (perhaps because it doesn’t try and do so much) is better.
While Haggis wears his heart on his sleeve, what he really needs is a copy editor on his shoulder. Someone needs to tell him that when you cast someone as soulful as Tommy Lee Jones you can just let him tell the audience what is going on with his eyes – you don’t then have to then verbalise it in the next shot. Probably an easy mistake to make when you are a writer first and a director second…
If Haggis needs a copy editor then M. Night Shyamalan needs a security guard on the door of his office, holding the keys to his typewriter. The Happening is an eco-thriller about a mysterious “event” that causes people across the North East of America to lose their minds and then do away with themselves. Among those caught up in the mess is high school science teacher Mark Wahlberg who thinks the mysterious disappearance of America’s bee population might have something to do with it.
Shyamalan has obvious talent as a director: he has an eye for an arresting image and has seen enough Hitchcock to construct effective set-pieces but he can’t write dialogue that human beings can actually say which continually drops the audience out of the moment. Luckily, whenever I lost connection to the story, there was Zooey Deschanel (as Wahlberg’s wife), whose electric blue eyes should be categorised as an alternative fuel source.
Outsourced is returning to cinemas after a brief turn at the World Cinema Showcase. It’s a beguiling tale of a Seattle call centre manager (Josh Hamilton) who has to go to India to train his replacement when the novelty company he works for relocates “fulfilment” to Gwaripur. The usual cross-cultural misunderstandings occur but the characters all grow on you, much like India grows on our hero.
Finally, legendary social commentator Adam Sandler takes on another pressing political issue (after gay marriage in I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry) and helps solve the conflict in the Middle East with You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, a hit and miss comedy that is mostly hit for a change. Sandler is the Zohan, number one Israeli counter-terrorist operative, who is tired of the endless conflict and yearns to emulate his hero (Paul Mitchell), cut hair in New York and make everything “silky smooth”. So he fakes his own death and smuggles his way in to America where the only job he can get is in a Palestinian salon. His unorthodox methods with the ladies soon make him very popular indeed but the conflict is never far away.
There are plenty of jokes per minute and the relentless teasing of Israelis for their love of fizzy drinks, hummus, disco and hacky-sack is pretty entertaining.
2008 is shaping up to be a year of great films about people being beastly to each other and the first cab off the rank is Tim Burton’s majestic adaptation of Sondheim’s broadway opera Sweeney Todd. Based on the true-ish story of the Victorian barber who murders his customers to provide fresh meat for his girlfriend’s pies, Sweeney Todd is positively Shakespearian in scale – meaty, savage, sinister and poignant. Johnny Depp plays the talented scissor-man who returns to London 15 years after he was transported to the colonies by crooked Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) who had desires on his pretty wife. Consumed with a passion for revenge Todd goes back to work above the shop selling London’s worst pies, made by the redoubtable Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). There, more by accident than design, they discover that his skills with a razor might be profitable in more ways than one.
Sondheim’s music and lyrics are as good as any other writing for the stage in the last century and the film version honours that talent unconditionally. When young Toby (Ed Sanders) sings “Not While I’m Around” (probably the most beautiful song ever written) to Mrs Lovett you can see the look in her eyes that shows he has just sealed his own fate, the temperature in the theatre seemed to drop a few degrees. Not just anyone can pull that off.
The best of the rest at the moment is Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, a pacy and observant look at the life of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), Harlem’s most notorious and successful drug dealer of the 1970s. Russell Crowe plays Richie Roberts, the only honest cop in New York. It’s an interesting story well told by three charismatic film personalities.
After the Wedding is a lovely, layered drama from Denmark starring the watchable Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale) as an aid worker at an Indian orphanage who is summoned back to Copenhagen by a mysterious billionaire (Rolf Lassgård). Lassgård wants to donate enough money to save the programme – millions of dollars – but there are strings attached. Those strings turn out to be less nefarious than they seem at first but the choice that Mikkelsen’s Jacob has to make is still a heart-breaking one. Totally recommended.
Totally un-recommended is the Australian comedy-drama Clubland about an unusual showbiz family led by domineering mother Brenda Blethyn. Asinine in conception and horrible in execution, it struggles to get one good performance out the entire cast put together.
Death at a Funeral isn’t much better, although a couple of performances (Peter Dinklage and a doughy Matthew McFadyen) rise above the cheap and nasty script. The funeral is for McFadyen’s father and various friends and family members have assembled to form a quorum of English stereotypes. Standard farce elements like mistaken identity and accidental drug-taking are shoe-horned together with the help of some poo jokes.
Alien vs. Predator: Requiem managed to disappear from my memory about as soon as I left the theatre with my ears still ringing from the noise. An Alien pod being transported across the galaxy crash lands in Colorado and starts laying eggs – cause that’s just how they roll. A creature from the Predator home-world tries to clean up the mess and a whole bunch of random citizens get caught in the middle. All the signature moments from the original Alien (the chest-bursting, the almost-kissing a whimpering young woman) are repeated often, to diminishing effect and, I know I sometimes see cinematic racism everywhere, is it really necessary for both malevolent extra-terrestrial races to look like big black men with dreadlocks?
There’s a factory in China, I’m sure, stamping out films like Elsa & Fred on a weekly basis, making subtle cultural and generational changes where necessary but preserving the formula like it’s Coca Cola. And fair enough as these films will always sell: un-challenging, easy to decipher, vaguely life-affirming. Elsa (China Zorrilla) is a batty old woman in a Madrid apartment block. Fred (Manuel Alexandre) is the quiet widower who moves in opposite. She decides to point him back the direction of life and he tries to make her dreams come true before it is too late.
Finally, Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution is an extremely well-made but overlong erotic thriller set in Japanese-occupied China during WWII. Stunning newcomer Wei Tang plays Wong Chia Chi, persuaded in a moment of youthful, patriotic weakness to join a student resistance group. She is sent undercover to try and woo the mysterious Mr Yee (Tony Leung) who is a senior official collaborating with the Japanese occupation forces. Unfortunately, for them both he is interested but a challenging mark and it is several years before she can get close enough to him (and believe me she gets very close) for the resistance to strike. Ang Lee is the poet of the stolen glance and he is in very good form – I just wish it hadn’t taken quite so long to get going.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 23 January, 2008.
Nature of Conflict: After the Wedding is distributed in NZ and Australia by Arkles Entertainment who I do some work for; Clubland is distributed in Australia and NZ by Palace whose NZ activities are looked after by the excellent Richard Dalton, who is a good mate.
At present Reading Cinemas are not offering press passes to the Capital Times. This means that their exclusive releases (such as Cloverfield) will go un-reviewed unless I can work something out with them or the distributor. Maybe I’ll just download them …