The best way I can think of to sum up Jobs, the hastily-prepared not-quite adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s hastily-published biography of the Apple co-founder, is that its subject would have hated it. After all, Steve had taste and – famously – exercised it. He also didn’t release products until they were ready whereas Joshua Michael Stern’s film feels like the winner of a race to be first rather than best.
Ashton Kutcher impersonates Mr. Jobs effectively enough, to the extent of mimicking the man’s strange lope, but never gets further under his skin than a blog post or tabloid headline might. I suspect that is not a comment on Mr. Kutcher’s talent but on the episodic script by first-timer Matt Whiteley. Josh Gad’s Woz provides comic relief only and the amount of fake facial hair on offer suggests the film might better have been titled iBeard.
Operating on a much deeper level is Daniel Borgman’s The Weight of Elephants, a film that prioritises what goes on under the surface almost to the complete exclusion of plot. Gorgeous Demos Murphy plays 10-year-old Adrian, living with his depressed Uncle Rory (great Matthew Sunderland) and Gran (Catherine Wilkin) in suburban Invercargill. The strange disappearance of three local children has an upsetting effect on a boy who is struggling to fit in to the world around him anyway.
Alyx Duncan’s The Red House is a lovely example of how ideas that evolve, adjust, transform over time can produce work that is just as coherent and complete as if it arrived fully formed. Originally conceived several years ago as a documentary about her ageing parents who were thinking about leaving the house she grew up in and starting again overseas, her film is now a poetic and impressionistic – as well as fictional – meditation on place and belonging.
In the finished film – unlike real life – Lee (Lee Stuart) follows Jia (Meng Jia Stuart), his wife of 20 years, to Beijing where she has travelled to care for her own frail parents. He packs up the few belongings he is able to take with him from the years of assembled mementos, books and treasures, burning much of what is left over. Voiceover from both characters lets the audience know how difficult this transition is, as well as telling the backstory of an unlikely – and lovely – relationship.
From the first bars of John Williams’ famous fanfare, played on a 1000 kazoos, you know The Clone Wars is going to be a cheap and cheerful, Saturday morning cartoon level, rip-off of the Star Wars universe and so it proves. Without participation of any of the original stars (except for game old Chris Lee as Dooku) and George Lucas’ involvement limited to insisting that one character has the voice of Truman Capote, a minor episode gets spun out well beyond it’s ability to engage and entertain but it is quite amusing to be reminded that all the clones look like Tem Morrison. The tone is basically “All Jar-Jar, all the time” but even your average eight year old might wonder why it has to be so repetitive.
While it shouldn’t be any great surprise to be intellectually insulted by The Clone Wars, I was amazed to actually be personally insulted by the creators of comic-book action flick Wanted, during the summing-up voice-over at the end. Gentlemen, I am far from pathetic and the opposite of ordinary and if your idea of a valid personal philosophy is to murder strangers because a magic loom told you to, then I’m pretty happy here on my side of that fence. Director Timur Bekmambetov proved with Night Watch and Day Watch that he has a thrilling personal style but not much in the way of storytelling ability which he confirms with his first Hollywood studio production. Mr Tumnus, James McAvoy, plays nerdy accounts clerk Wesley who finds out he is the son and heir of the world’s best assassin. Aided by Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman he learns to shoot round corners and discover an objectivist sense of purpose that puts his own personal freedom and destiny above the lives of (for example) hundreds of innocent people on a train. Vile.
Harry Houdini was one of the 20th century’s legendary entertainers and in Death Defying ActsGuy Pearce renders him completely without charisma which is a remarkable achievement. The first great sceptic, Houdini offers $10,000 to anyone who can tell him his beloved mother’s final words. Stage mind-reader Catherine Zeta Jones sees a way out of poverty but finds herself falling in love instead. The lack of electricity (real or imagined) between the two leads hampers things somewhat but the camera loves Saoirse Ronan (Atonement and the forthcoming Lovely Bones) so it isn’t a complete waste of time.
While China is front and centre of world attention at the moment, the arrival in cinemas of Yung Chang’s excellent documentary Up the Yangtze couldn’t be better timed. Taking us on a luxury cruise up a Yangtze river being slowly transformed by the epic (Mao-inspired) Three Gorges Dam project, the film manages to get more of China into it’s cleverly layered 90 minutes than seems possible. Teenage Yu dreams of going to University and becoming an engineer but her parents are illiterate and dirt poor and have missed out on the compensation that would move them from their shack beside the river. So, against her will, she is sent to work on the cruise ship where she is given the English name Candy and instructed in the ways of modern domestic service. Meanwhile, her parents struggle to find a new place to live and the river inexorably rises.
When discussing global warming and carbon emissions, we are often told that China opens a new coal powered power station every week which is evidently a bad thing. But, ironically, when they build a renewable hydro-electric scheme the West gets pretty snooty about that too. The pressures on China from all directions are keenly felt in this film, which will tell you more about that part of the world than three weeks of Olympic Games.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 20 August, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: Star Wars: The Clone Wars was viewed at one of those excruciating radio station previews on Wednesday, 13 August (Readings). Wanted and Death Defying Acts were at Empire public screenings and Up the Yangtze was a preview screener DVD. I wish I had seen it at the Festival, though. I’m sure it would have looked very fine at the Embassy.
Returning swiftly from the Festival is The Italian, a lovely and old-fashioned art-house winner about a six year-old Russian orphan played by the wonderful Kolya Spiridonov. He’s Vanya, a little urchin with soulful eyes who sees everything that goes on in his wretched Dickensian orphanage including the corruption, thievery and abuse. The mother of his best friend makes a pathetic drunken appearance which gives him the idea that he, too, might have a mother. And, if he has a mother then there’s no reason why he can’t find her so they can live together forever. Highly recommended.
My Best Friend is one of those French films that signals its gallic credentials with plenty of accordion music (though falls short of gratuitous Eiffel Tower shots like Orchestra Seats earlier in the year). Ubiquitous Daniel Auteuill plays an antique dealer who discovers he has no friends but needs one to win a bet. He discovers trivia buff taxi driver Dany Boon who seems to win friends effortlessly and demands to know his secret.
And, like so many French films, the effete bourgeois gets life lessons from the down-to-earth proletarian (cf Conversations With My Gardener, still to return from the Festival) because the life of an intellectual is no life at all. If this was an American remake starring John Travolta and, say, Chris Rock we’d call it the rubbish it is.
Talking of rubbish American remakes, No Reservations is a virtually shot-for-shot recreation of the German hit Mostly Martha about an uptight female chef disarmed by her 9 year-old niece and the vivid Italian chef she is forced to work beside. This is a vehicle for Catherine Zeta-Jones with support from Little Miss Sunshine’s Abigail Breslin and talking chin Aaron Eckhart and I’m sure most will find it unexceptional; I despised its lazy competence including the cynical ability to commission a rare Philip Glass score and then discard it whenever the need for a cheap pop cue appears.
Breach is a terribly good, low-key, post-Cold War thriller anchored by a Champions League performance from Chris Cooper as real-life FBI traitor Robert Hanssen who was caught and convicted in February 2001 after 22 years selling secrets to the Russians. Helping nail him is rookie Ryan Phillippe who, at first, is seduced by his pious Catholicism and computer-nerdery before discovering the complex and unusual man inside. Of course, while the FBI was putting every spare man-hour on the case of the mole within, several Saudi students were learning to fly planes in Florida so it wasn’t exactly the Bureau’s finest hour.
In The War Within, Grand Central Station in New York is the target of fictional Al-Qaeda terrorist Hassan who, like Derek Luke’s character in Catch a Fire a few weeks ago, is an innocent man radicalised by the brutality around him. Very well made and photographed (HD’s digital ability to produce vivid, saturated colours well to the fore) on a modest budget. The War Within is almost calculated to be of limited interest to mainstream audiences but will certainly reward those who seek it out.
In Black Snake Moan, psychologically-damaged abuse-victim Christina Ricci goes off the deep end when boyfriend Justin Timberlake leaves their small Tennessee town to join the National Guard. Grizzled Blues veteran Samuel L. Jackson chains her to a radiator to save her from herself but he has issues of his own, of course. Black Snake Moan gets better the more it trusts its characters and, if you can get past the pulp shock value, there’s a good film inside.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times, Wednesday 23 August, 2007.
Some screening notes: The Italian screened at home several weeks ago on a time-coded DVD from the Film Festival; My Best Friend viewed from the too close front row of a packed Penthouse Three (the big new one) on 11 August; No Reservations seen at a virtually empty staff and media screening in Readings 8 at 9.15 on a Monday morning (6 August); Breach watched this Monday (20 August) at the Empire in Island Bay who shouted me a free coffee after I bitched about the bus driver making me throw my first one away; The War Within screened at home on Saturday night from a gently watermarked DVD from Arkles, the distributor; Black Snake Moan screened at the Paramount on Monday afternoon.
Full disclosure: I have done paid work in the past for Arkles Entertainment (distributor of The War Within) and am designing their new web site which will be live next week.