Anyone wondering whether the great Pedro Almodóvar had lost some of his edge at the ripe old age of 62 should immediately check out his new film The Skin I Live In which is as deranged as anything else he has produced in more than thirty years of feature film making. Puss In Boots himself, Antonio Banderas, plays a successful plastic surgeon with a dark secret. Many of his greatest medical achievements are a result of the experiments he conducts on a beautiful woman (Elena Anaya) held captive in his mansion.
Who is she? Why is she there? These questions are answered in the film but have to be skirted around here for even the tiniest hint at spoilers will wreck some of the twistiest (in all senses of the word except perhaps confectionary) surprises you will experience all year. It’s enough to say that if this film had been made in the 1950s then Banderas’ character would have been played by Vincent Price (think House of Wax) and that everyone involved would have been run out of town by the authorities.
Economically speaking, theatres are a complete waste of space. I mean, take a look at the St James or the Embassy and try and imagine how many cubicles and desks you could fit in to those huge pieces of prime real estate. Or even better, how many cars could you park inside them? (Car parks require lower ceilings therefore more floors for the same building height) What kind of fool thinks of constructing a big empty building simply to shine a light through the middle of it?
This kind of nonsense has been going on for centuries though as Anonymous, Roland Emmerich’s new piece of speculative fiction, demonstrates. Stretching credulity almost as far as Star Trek requiring us to believe in faster-than-light speed, Anonymous asks its audience to assume that barely-literate actor Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) was not the author of all those plays and sonnets but instead they were penned by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) and used as a tool to rile the populace and provoke political unrest.
This film picks up almost immediately after the previous episode finished and you may be surprised to discover that pretty much everyone you thought was dead turns out to be still alive and making mischief. Feisty Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) is stuck in hospital recovering from her injuries while dour journalist Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and his mates do their investigatin’.
Two films this week made by screen legends whose careers have settled in to something a little less than their glorious past. Sidney Lumet was making television drama when it was broadcast live from the studio in the 40s and 50s, and made the first (and best) version of courtroom drama 12 Angry Men in 1957. In the 70s he made some of the best of those gritty New York stories that defined the decade (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network) but his most recent work has passed under the New Zealand radar, his last twofeatures not even getting a local release. To be honest I thought he was dead and figured that I must have missed his name pass by in one of those Academy Award salutes to the fallen.
Which makes Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead a lovely surprise: a gritty, R‑rated, heist-gone-wrong picture, set in those New York mean streets we seem to know so well (but also the verdant Westchester suburbs). Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke play two down-on-their luck brothers, young men whose character flaws render them inadequate to cope with the various pressures of modern living. Hoffman’s Andy is an ambitious real estate accountant (not a deal-maker but a wannabe player) with a drug habit and an embezzlement problem. Hawke’s Hank is divorced and struggling to pay the prep school fees and child support to his tough bitch ex-wife (Amy Ryan from Gone Baby Gone).
When Andy suggests that the robbery of a small suburban shopping mall jewellery store would be the answer to all their problems we are about to get one of the great set-ups for a thriller in modern memory and they are about to get in to a whole heap of trouble. Effortlessly switching perspectives and time-frames, Lumet proves that he hasn’t lost that ability to reveal human frailty by piling on the pressure. Totally recommended.
Brendan Gleason Gleeson (stretching his legs) plays self-made property developer Liam O’Leary who, under pressure from the banks and corrupt politicians, starts seeing visions of a man who looks like himself, following him around. It turns out this fellow is his doppelgänger, bent on destroying the life Liam has built for himself and taking anything valuable to be found in the rubble. The “evil twin” story is one of the oldest in literature and it makes for a pretty lumpy metaphor here. Despite all the success and riches brought by the Irish Miracle, as Father Andy who runs the homeless shelter (Ciarán Hinds) says, “for every success, someone else has to lose”. Boorman’s direction is workmanlike but he retains that annoying habit of re-recording all the dialogue later using ADR, making it sometimes seem like you are watching a poorly-dubbed foreign film.
Kung Fu Panda is a boisterous and entertaining animated flick that resembles an eight-year-old’s bedroom while they are throwing all their toys around. The story makes no attempt at originality, hoping that the voice genius of Jack Black and the thrilling broad-brush animation will provide enough energy to carry you through (and for the most part it does). Black plays Po, a panda with dreams of kung fu glory. When Tai Lung (Ian McShane), the evil snow leopard, escapes from detention bent on revenge the search goes out for a new Dragon Warrior, for only a Dragon Warrior can defend the valley from such a menace. And so on and so forth.
Finally, in the annals of pointlessness a new chapter must be written and that chapter will be titled Speed Racer. I fell asleep during The Matrix at the Embassy in 1999 so The Wachowski Brothers have never managed to work their magic on me but even so, I have rarely felt so detached from a big screen movie as I did watching this adaptation of a (supposed) cult Japanese kids cartoon. In fact, I found myself pondering the total carbon footprint of the experience if you add the appalling cost of the film to my sitting in an empty, climate-controlled, theatre on a Monday morning to watch it.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 2 July, 2008. Sorry for the delay in posting but somehow I managed to get pretty busy this week.
No review to post this week (only Hancock released and Will Smith will do nicely without any help or hindrance from me) and next week I’ll be putting up my mammoth Wellington Film Festival preview (cross-posted to Wellingtonista).