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.
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.