In the last (non-Rancho) post I made a commitment to get back in to regular reviewing and to end my year-long sabbatical. (For the reasons behind the hiatus, it is recommended that you have a quick read. Go on, I’ll wait here.) It has come as a bit of a surprise to me that I’ve actually seen as much as I have over the last few months. It didn’t feel like it but — thanks to Radio New Zealand, FishHead and Rancho Notorious — fully 18 of the films currently screening around Wellington are films I can actually have an opinion on.
Anyway, here goes, and I might as well start with the oldest first. Which, as it turns out, is also a contender for the worst film in this post.
I’ve never managed to hide my disdain for Little Miss Sunshine, a film which is beloved by many and held up as an example of quality screenwriting to which we all should aspire. It is, in fact, garbage. A collection of tics masquerading as characters stuck in a contrived-cute situation in which life lessons will be learned too easily and happy endings will be unearned. Theodore Melfi’s debut feature St. Vincentalso falls into all these traps only deeper. It also relies so heavily on the great Bill Murray that it manages to even bring him into disrepute.
I made the mistake of watching The Dark Knight Rises twice last week. The first time was entertaining enough, I suppose. The opening set-piece – in which a CIA renditions plane is hijacked in mid-air by it’s own cargo – is brilliantly conceived but pointless, Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman is a breath of fresh air and the ending (unspoiled here) works extremely hard to tie up the many loose ends and satisfy even the meanest critic.
But second time up, the problems come into even clearer focus. The confused ideology (a fusion of zeitgeisty “Occupy Gotham” wealth redistribution and pro-vigilante “mean streets will always need cleaning” status quo protectionism), endless tiresome exposition of both plot and theme and the huge holes in its own internal logic, all serve to dissipate the impact of the impressive visuals.
I was really enjoying Inception until I woke up. Actually, that’s not true. Unlike my companion, the Sandman didn’t come to rescue me from Christopher Nolan’s bombastic blockbuster and I had to sit through all two and a half hours of it, wondering what all the fuss was about.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays a corporate spy who specialises in entering people’s dreams and discovering their secrets. This is evidently a complex technology that requires one dreamer to design the location (it has to be fake because not knowing whether you are awake or dreaming carries massive risks to one’s sanity), one dreamer to lead the subject, the subject themselves and (sometimes) a forger who can take on the shapes and characteristics of other people.
There’s a lot of fighting in these dreams as the subject’s subconscious sees the invasion and tries to fight it off like white blood cells. But, you know when in your own dreams you try and hit someone and they end up being really weak marshmallow punches? That’s how the antibodies shoot so it takes quite a lot of bullets before one will actually hit you. And when one hits you and you die, in the real world you wake up so it’s really like a video game with multiple lives.
It’s babies everywhere in the cinemas at the moment. Last week I reviewed the Tina Fey comedy Baby Mama about a middle-aged woman desperate for a child and this week we have a Helen Hunt drama about a middle-aged woman desperate for a baby and even Hellboy is going to be a daddy.
Then She Found Me, Helen Hunt’s debut as writer-director, is a sensitive and well-acted piece of work (and often much funnier than the Fey version). She plays a New York primary school teacher whose adoptive mother dies two days after her husband (Matthew Broderick) leaves her. Like many adopted children, the desire for a blood-relative is what promotes the desire for a child, but that desire is soon swamped by the arrival of the birth mother she never knew (Bette Midler) and a ready-made family led by Colin Firth. Witty and humane, Then She Found Me is set in a New York people actually live in, populated with people who actually live and breathe. I was quite moved by this film, but then maybe I’m just a big sook.
Back in the 1980s, toiling under the yoke of Thatcherite crypto-fascist intolerance, we used to dream of the German Democratic Republic where according to apologists like Billy Bragg, “you can’t get guitar strings but everyone has a job and decent health care.” Now, of course, thanks to films like The Lives of Others, we know that the rulers of East Germany were just fascists with another uniform and that social justice may be important but isn’t the only kind of justice we need in our lives. Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution is a low-budget British comedy about a naïve family of Yorkshire communists in 1968 who follow their dreams of a workers’ paradise and emigrate to East Germany only to find the truth very much not to their liking.
There might have been an interesting story here buried under the broad comedy – sometimes it seems like Carry on Communism – but the tone is all wrong and it feels as if it has gone intellectually off the rails. There’s some nice architecture although the filmmakers had to go to Hungary to find it.
Sometimes, when you go to the movies, you get the perfect match of film to mood. Not often, but sometimes. Last Friday night, after a week where the ambient stress level at work had amped up yet again, I needed to see something that didn’t require anything of me except my presence and I got it with Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Featuring lots of bright shiny things to keep my attention, lots of loud noises to keep me awake and not much in the way of story to worry about, I enjoyed myself a lot but don’t remember very much. Except noting that, unlike The Dark Knight’s Christopher Nolan, director Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth and the forthcoming Hobbit duo-logy) shoots fight scenes so you can follow what’s going on.
The Paramount’s eclectic (if not schizophrenic) programming policy throws up some odd combinations. The presence of the hideous, animated, Bible-story The Ten Commandments is simply inexplicable while Spanish shocker [REC] is perfect Paramount fodder. And at the same time, Danny Mulheron’s loving home-made documentary about his grandfather, The Third Richard, is getting a well-deserved brief season. The Ten Commandments barely belongs in the $5 DVD bargain-bin (or as a free gift when you sign up with your local evangelicals). It’s a sign of how our culture has changed that in the 50s we got Charlton Heston bringing the tablets down from the mountain, and now we get Christian Slater. And what to make of the subtle re-writing of the commandments themselves: Thou Shalt Not Murder gives you a little more wiggle-room in the killing department than the old-fashioned Thou Shalt Not Kill. Reprehensible.
One is either in to zombie movies or one isn’t, and if one is one will be very happy with [REC]. Set in a Barcelona apartment building where a fly-on-the-wall tv crew are following fire-fighters on an emergency call, [REC] at one point managed to make me jump three times in less than a second – that’s not easy.
The story of Richard Fuchs, architect and composer, emigré and grandfather, is very well told by Danny Mulheron and Sara Stretton. Based around a “rehabilitation” concert in Karlsruhe, last year, where Fuchs’ music was played in public for the first time since his escape to New Zealand in 1939, the film has some stylistic choices that I might not have made but the heart and intelligence of the filmmmakers shine through. It’s a Wellington story, too, and you should see it if you can.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 3 September, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution was interrupted twice by the house lights (a Sunday morning screening in Penthouse 2, still suffering from the annoying screen flicker caused by incorrect shutter timing and the hot spot in the centre of the screen). And I had to go down and close the door at the start of the film. At [REC] quite a few of us were sat in the Brooks (Paramount) amidst the bottles, empty glasses and general rubbish from a whole day’s screenings. <Sigh>
Back in 1986 Frank Miller single-handedly reinvented the Batman franchise in book form with “The Dark Knight Returns”, a four-part mini-series which saw an ageing Bruce Wayne come out of retirement one last time to fight the scourge of lawlessness that beset his beloved Gotham City. Fans have waited in vain for that story (dark, cynical, epic and powerful) to arrive on the silver screen but Christopher Nolan’s current version of the hero (introduced in Batman Begins in 2005) is still heading in the right direction, even to the extent of cribbing Miller’s title for this second episode.
In The Dark Knight we join the action not long after the end of the previous film. The forces of Gotham City law enforcement (with the help of the masked vigilante and a few unfortunate copy cats in hockey pads) are squeezing the city’s organised crime syndicates and cleaning up the city. Only psychopathic freakazoid The Joker (Heath Ledger) seems to be able to act with impunity and he offers the Mob a deal: he’ll dispatch the flying bat in exchange for half their business.
Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) still hankers after beautiful Asst DA Rachel Dawes (this time played by Maggie Gyllenhaal replacing Katie Holmes) who promised they could be together if he could ever give up his double-life. The arrival on the scene of handsome and principled District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) as legitimate crime-fighter (a “white knight”) might just give him a way out, only Dent is also in love with Rachel. Meanwhile, The Joker’s plot to destroy Batman strikes closer and closer to home.
Despite being more than 20 minutes longer than it needs to be, The Dark Knight is a successful attempt to balance the thrills and spills of a modern day blockbuster with something a little more psychologically demanding. Nolan has claimed that there is very little digital effects work in the film and that he tried to shoot as much of the action as real as possible and it pays off – there must have been some digital in there but (apart from Dent’s astonishing and grotesque transformation into Two-Face) I couldn’t pick any.
It is disappointing that Nolan’s vision of Gotham City from the first film seems to have faded. Instead of the hyper-modern city in disrepair we got last time, now it looks like plain old modern day New York crossed with Chicago crossed with Toronto, and I guess that was one of the sacrifices made in the decision to ditch digital but the city itself is well short on atmosphere.
Bale, as ever, leaves this reviewer cold, but the supporting players are all fine actors in great form (particularly Michael Caine as Alfred, the former Special Forces butler). Ledger is tremendous and provides hints of the kind of liberating work he might have been capable of had he lived, although talk of a posthumous Oscar seems excessive. After all, since Cesar Romero in the 60s The Joker has been a license to ham and this version specifically is supposed to be all show and no depth.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 31 july, 2008. Sorry, I am so behind with posting. I’ll try and get this week’s edition up before the end of the weekend.
Notes on screening conditions: The Dark Knight screened at a surprisingly busy Monday morning session at Readings. And when I say “surprisingly busy” I mean over 100 people. At 11.00am!