Before Jerry Dammers and The Special AKA wrote that song about him in 1983, I didn’t know who Nelson Mandela was. When I bought the record and read the story on the back I was horrified – 23 years as a political prisoner, much of it in solitary confinement. I knew the South African régime was unspeakable, but now I had a focus for my anger. Who would have thought that only a dozen years later, Mandela would be in the middle of a second chapter of his life – President of South Africa and international statesman – and that his stewardship of the transition from apartheid to majority rule would be a shining beacon of tolerance, forgiveness and humanity. It really could have gone terribly wrong.
Mandela, then, is the great hero of my life, my political and personal inspiration, so I can be forgiven for being quite moved by Invictus, Clint Eastwood’s portrayal of those crucial first years in government, culminating in the Springbok’s victory over New Zealand in the 1995 Rugby World Cup Final. Mandela is played by Morgan Freeman (too tall, accent some distance off perfect, but still somehow managing to nail the essence of the guy) and the other name on the poster is Matt Damon as Springbok captain Francois Pienaar. It’s another characteristically generous performance from Damon who is turning into a character actor with movie star looks.
Welcome to the 2010 “cut out and keep” guide to video renting (or downloading or however you consume your home entertainment these days). I suggest you clip this article, fold it up, stick it in your wallet or purse and refer to it whenever you are at the video shop, looking for something to while away the long winter evenings of 2010.
First up, the ones to buy – the Keepers. These are the films that (if you share my psychology and some of my pathologies) you will cherish until you are old and the technology to play them no longer exists. Best film of the year remains Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. Mashing together several archetypal stories with a vivid visual style and a percussive energy, Slumdog may not represent India as it actually is but instead successfully evoked what India feels like, which is arguably more important. After Slumdog everything I saw seemed, you know, old-fashioned and nothing has been anywhere nearly as thrilling since. There are films you respect, films you admire and films you love. Slumdog is a film you adore. “Who wants to be a … miyonaire?” indeed.
After Slumdog Millionaire last week, everything seems kind of old-fashioned. At any other time a film like Milk would stand out from the crowd as an example of quality, thoughtful, serious story-telling. This week, though, it seemed pedestrian, predictable and, frankly, a little straight.
Harvey Milk was a gay activist in San Francisco at a time when the gay community’s few human rights were under threat from the reactionary right. But Milk (played with his usual humility by the great Sean Penn) was a passionate advocate for personal freedom and a cunning politician who made clever and vital alliances across the political spectrum. The one alliance he failed to make (because he had no way of foreseeing that Supervisor Dan White’s mental instability would take so tragic a form) ended up being the one that killed him and it’s ironic that Milk wasn’t assassinated because of his sexuality or his ideas – but because of petty political jealousy.
Valkyrie is the latest release from Tom Cruise’s own United Artists company and it fascinates me the choices he makes when he’s essentially pleasing himself rather than meeting the expectations of the public. Cruise plays Von Stauffenberg, wounded German WWII hero with a conscience. He (along with what looks like a Pirates of the Caribbean reunion of great British actors) decide that to save Germany, and secure an early peace with the Allies, Hitler must be disposed of. Director Bryan Singer seems a lot more comfortable building subtle tension here than with the bombast of Superman Returns, and Cruise is pleasingly un-Cruise-like – no grandstanding or cheesy grins here.
What I found most interesting about Valkyrie is the portrait of the Nazi bureaucracy – a paper-shuffling, form-filling nightmare; a perfect environment for an ambitious paranoiac to thrive and beyond even a dedicated team of traitors to overturn.
Clint Eastwood’s Changeling also shares the subtext of dehumanising bureaucracy, but his storytelling compass is way off this time. Angelina Jolie plays an honest single-mom in 1920’s Los Angeles. Her young son disappears and the corrupt and venal LAPD decide the first stray kid they find is hers and then demonise and victimise her when she complains. What starts out as a thrillingly unbelievable story loses its way early on and by the time we get to the court room the narrative drive has all but fizzled out – and that’s only the end of the second act.
The richly detailed evocation of the period is an undeniable pleasure which means there is always something to look at (for some of you that might even be the skeletal Angelina), even while you are wishing the film would just hurry up and finish.
During last year’s Film Festival I unfortunately fell asleep during Tomas Alfredson’s atmospheric Swedish vampire story Let the Right One In but I subsequently heard many great things about it so I thought I’d give it another go this weekend. Guess what? It did it again – out like a light. There must be something hypnotic that happens about 20 minutes in as I lost consciousness at exactly the same point as before. Even after waking up, I found I couldn’t get enthusiastic about a film that seems to take forever to get anywhere and, unforgivably, feels much longer than it is.
Also from the Festival, but keeping one very much awake, was Steve McQueen’s Hunger (winner of the Camera D’or at Cannes last year for best first film). McQueen is (literally) a visual artist and now a heavyweight filmmaker. In pure art-house style it elliptically tells the story of the IRA hunger strikers of the early 80s who fought to be recognised as political prisoners while Thatcher’s government refused to acknowledge their legitimacy. It’s heavy (about as heavy as you get these days) but brilliant.
Sparkle is an inessential comedy drama about a naïve young scouser making his way through London, meeting interesting characters and finding love. It’s made by Tom Hunsinger & Neil Hunter who six years ago made the well-liked Lawless Heart . Unfortunately, this is a backward step with none of that film’s narrative cleverness and characters that are sketched rather than painted.
Even that’s better than the half-arsed Sex Drive which is Exhibit A in my current case against the culture. Decent young Ian (Josh Zuckerman) can’t get laid so borrows his brother’s pristine red GTO to drive across country to visit a ‘sure thing’ he met on the Internet. Even the soppy ‘friends forever’ ending is cynical. These sorts of films (Role Models is another example) used to be made by indies for drive-ins and the exploitation came from the gut (if not the heart). Now they’re part of a studio portfolio and are made by hacks rather than mavericks.
Printed (for the most part) in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 11 February, 2009.
Notes on screening conditions: Milk was a public screening at the Lighthouse in Petone where I witnessed a new low in audience talking-through-the-movie behaviour. Gah! Valkyrie was at the Empire in Island Bay where (unusually for them) I had to go out and ask them focus it. The auditorium hadn’t been cleaned either. Must have been a busy day. Let the Right One In was at the Paramount and the snowy vistas betray the complete difference in light quality between projector one and two (no platters at the Paz). Hunger was in the same venue during the Festival, six months ago. Sparkle was a skipping DVD lent by the Paramount – it was their backup so I hope they never have to use it. Sex Drive was a public screening at Readings where I witnessed a new low in audience putting-your-bare-feet-on-the-seat-in-front behaviour. Yuk!
Clint Eastwood has been on our screens for over 50 years and at 78 years old he has decided to call it a day and his valedictory performance in Gran Torino is completely worthy of the man. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a working class widower living on a suburban Detroit street, one of the few original residents still around as the neighbourhood fills up with Hmong immigrants. In a gang initiation his teenage neighbour Thao tries to steal Walt’s beloved 1972 Gran Torino (a car he helped build on the Ford assembly line) and, as penance, the kid is forced to work for Walt over the summer. They get to know each other – and the threat from the Hmong gang-bangers who now have an axe to grind with Walt as well as Thao and his family.
In 1997 two young hotshots stunned the film world by winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for their first produced script. Since then, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have suffered cruel mutterings ever since: that they couldn’t possibly have written such a good film by themselves and that if they did why haven’t they written anything else? Added to the indignity is the constant rumour that Hollywood script guru William Goldman netted a million dollars for three weeks work punching up Good Will Hunting on condition that he would forever deny it (which he denies).
In the 11 years since that win the career trajectories of Affleck and Damon have been public. Starring roles in blockbuster successes, high-profile romantic liaisons and (in the case of Affleck) a little bit of rehab. But there has been precious little original creative output from either party until the release of Gone Baby Gone, Affleck’s directorial debut (also co-written), which reached Wellington this week.
Directing is a real test of a filmmaker’s chops. Unlike a fudged writing credit you can’t fake being on a set (although a great crew, DP and editor can often cover a multitude of sins) but I’m thrilled to report that Affleck has produced a work of genuine lasting quality.
Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, Gone Baby Gone is set in the same Boston mean streets that Will (from Good Will Hunting) grew up in. If you saw Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River (also from a Lehane story) or Scorsese’s The Departed you’ll be familiar with the geographical territory, but Affleck’s eye is even more highly tuned to the neighborhood than those masters.
Four year old Amanda has been snatched from her home while her young single mother (sensational Amy Ryan) was getting stoned at a bar. The Police led by Morgan Freeman (himself suffering the loss of a child) are struggling to get traction from a community suspicious of uniforms. Young private investigator Patrick (Casey Affleck) and his partner Angie (Michelle Monaghan) are enlisted by the family to try and tease out some clues that would be unavailable to law enforcement.
And that’s when it gets really interesting – because Affleck chooses to downplay the thriller (or procedural) aspects of the piece in favour of character study and the unveiling of a terrible moral dilemma. And its a dilemma that remains perfectly balanced right to the end where, like Bogart’s Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, our honourable private eye is virtually alone, forced to live with the unending pain of doing the right thing.
The production line of asian-horror-remakes is still chugging along. The Eye (remake of a Hong Kong thriller) will be reviewed next week while Shutter (based on a Thai film called Shutter) has already been around a week or so. I find these things to be dreadfully tiresome for the most part, formulaic and predictable. In Shutter a newlywed American couple in Japan (Joshua Jackson and Rachael Taylor) find strange shadows appearing in their holiday snaps. It turns out there’s a spirit following them around, sneaking into their frames, spoiling their compositions. Well, their photography is about to be the least of their worries. Shutter is laughable for the first two-thirds but rescued by a well-manufactured dénouement so I ended up not hating it totally.
Owen Wilson has been in the news more for his mental health issues than his acting in recent months but it is worthwhile to be reminded that he remains one of the most watch-able actors of modern times and the pleasant enough comedy Drillbit Taylor comes to life whenever he is on the screen. He plays the eponymous Taylor, a military deserter and bum who takes on the job of protecting three nerdy kids from high school bullies. The kids are pretty funny too – like the kids from Superbad, only a few years younger.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 2 April, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: This is the first all-Readings edition of the weekly review since it commenced back in October 2006.