I am sick of vampires. Sick to death. As a great philosopher once said, “What is point, vampires?” and I have to concur. They’re everywhere you seem to turn thses days and the most boring of the lot (the Twilight mob) are back in June to bore us all to death once again.
So, my heart sank a little when I saw the trailers for Daybreakers, an Aussie horror about a world controlled by vampires, hunting and farming the remaining humans for their plasma. One of the pleasures of this gig is when the surprises are pleasant and Daybreakers definitely turned into one of those. Tightly wound and (for the most part) logically sound, the tyres have been well and truly kicked on the premise before the cameras (and digital compositors and Weta mask makers) got involved.
Ethan Hawke plays the Chief Blood Scientist for the big corporation that provides most of the world’s supply. Ten years earlier, an infected bat caused an epidemic which rendered most of the population undead — a few, like CEO Sam Neill went willingly when faced with the offer of immortality. Hawke is working on a substitute — he’s vegetarian in a human blood kind of way — and supplies for everyone are running low. When a renegade bunch of humans (led by Willem Dafoe) tell him about a possible cure he is forced to choose between his boss, his human-hunter brother and what’s left of his humanity.
Showcasing the Taranaki landscape as well as the people, Show of Hands has an ambition as small as the town but, sadly, doesn’t bear up under too much scrutiny. A struggling car yard owner (StevenStephen Lovatt) runs a hands-on-the-car promotion as a last ditch attempt to save his business and a handily representative cross-section of New Zealand society turns out to have a go.
The three main contenders are Melanie Lynskey’s single-mum (who needs the car to ferry her wheelchair-bound daughter about); Matt Whelan’s young trustafarian and Craig Hall’s cold-fish businessman who may or may not need the dough to solve his business problems or may or may not just be an ultra-competitive egotistical jerk. The whole film suffers from a similar lack of clarity which makes suspending disbelief a struggle. The acting is fine however and Whelan in particular is excellent — one for the future there.
Cursed with a not-very-promising title, and a high concept premise (obnoxious dentist dies for seven minutes on an operating table and wakes up with the ability to see the ghosts of Manhattan), David Koepp’s Ghost Town turns out to be one of the mainstream pleasures of the year. I’m going to assume that every Hollywood rom-com with an English lead was written for Hugh Grant, but we can be grateful that he has all-but retired as it gives Ricky Gervais a meaty role which he grabs with both hands. Gervais may not have much range as an actor, but he does have depth and I found myself being unaccountably moved by a film that always delivers a little more than it says on the tin.
If the remarkable success of the 48 Hour Film Competition has proved anything in recent years it is that making films is now as much of a community experience as watching them and it’s that same hand-made, JFDI, aesthetic that Michel Gondry celebrates in the very special Be Kind Rewind.
While minding doddery Danny Glover’s ramshackle New Jersey video (and thrift) store, Mos Def discovers that all the precious VHS tapes have been erased by magnetic doofuss Jack Black. To save the business our heroes re-make the contents of the store using only a handycam and their ingenuity, eventually enlisting the whole town. I loved Be Kind Rewind and you’ll be honouring the spirit of the film if you see it at a theatre with a bunch of strangers.
Mirrors is yet another re-make of an Asian horror flick and there ain’t much water left in that particular well. Kiefer Sutherland plays a troubled NY ex-cop who takes a security guard job at an abandoned department store (Romanian and Hungarian studios plus a tiny bit of stock footage stand in for Manhattan). On his first night on the job the mirrors start to freak him out and two hours of excruciating exposition follow.
Also shot on a European sound stage, though a second unit did make it through JFK to shoot some scenery, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People is an amiable little romp starring Simon Pegg as a try-hard English journalist trying to make it as a celebrity writer on a top New York magazine. Pompous yet insecure, Pegg’s Sidney Young (loosely based on author Toby Young whose book was itself loosely based on his own short Manhattan career) cuts a slapstick swathe through high society. Pegg is ok (but he’s no Ricky Gervais, see above) but Megan Fox as movie star Sophie has the worst skin I’ve ever seen on a Hollywood leading actress.
Writer-Director Guy Ritchie’s dreadful faux-cockney purple prose has been drooled all over the interminable RocknRolla, a boysie bit of rough and tumble that’s the cinematic equivalent of someone grabbing you around the neck and rubbing their knuckles into your skull. The sloppy plot involves a Russian oligarch’s lucky painting, an old school East End gangster on the way out, a rock star faking his own death and a big black ticket tout with a taste for Jane Austen.
Ritchie does have an eye for young talent (Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels made Jason Statham a star): look out for Toby Kebbell (the junkie rock star Johnny Quid) and Tom Hardy (Handsome Bob), just don’t look out for them in this.
Finally, there’s not many films that wouldn’t be improved with the addition of the wonderful Jim Broadbent, and he really shines in And When Did You Last See Your Father?, a worthy brit-lit adaptation that also stars Colin Firth. Broadbent plays the father in question, a jovial egotist who doesn’t realise that his over-abundant joie-de-vivre is crushing the spirits of those around him. Firth is poet Blake Morrison, coming to terms with his father’s terminal illness with the help of plenty of flashbacks to his 60s childhood. Director Anand Tucker builds his case carefully until a splendidly moving finale draws a line under a very satisfying film.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 19 November, 2008.
Nature of conflict: I produced a couple of plays for Anthony McCarten back in the early 90s — “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and the revival of “Yellow Canary Mazurka”.
Notes on screening conditions: Ghost Town, How to lose Friends…, RocknRolla and Mirrors were all at Readings public sessions (all fine except How to Lose Friends… was slightly out of frame meaning some of the titles spilled on to the masking); Be Kind, Rewind was at the Paramount and the first half was 20% out of focus and the whole film was about 20% too quiet; Show of Hands was a late night watermarked DVD from Rialto Entertainment and And When Did You Last See Your Father? was at the Embassy during the Film Festival back in July.
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>
Computer programmers have a concept called ‘garbage collection’ whereby useless and redundant items are automatically disposed of by ‘the system’. We film reviewers don’t have access to such technology, however, and are responsible for tidying our own rooms so, while all sensible cinephiles have their attention focused on the Festival, this column is playing catch-up with the commercial releases still playing in your local cineplex.
First up is Will Smith’s traditional 4th July epic, Hancock. All the major distributors know to steer well clear of Independence Day weekend as Smith totally ‘owns’ but that grip may loosen after his latest effort left many underwhelmed. But, what’s that you say? $453m worldwide gross? He turns out to be absolutely critic proof and I feel even more redundant than usual.
As a Smith admirer, I was terribly let down by Hancock. A promising first two acts in which the eponymous superhero-bum seeks redemption under the guidance of PR flack Jason Bateman turns to custard in a final third that seems to have been made up as they went along with poor Charlize Theron having to explain the nonsense plot in an embarrassing extended monologue over a hospital bed containing a dying Hancock. Total balderdash.
Although, not as awful as Meet Dave in which Eddie Murphy plays a spaceship that looks like Eddie Murphy, piloted by Eddie Murphy, walking stiffly around Manhattan looking for a lost orb that will steal all of Earth’s seawater and save the home planet. As bad as it sounds, if not worse.
Much more fun, though very messy, is Mamma Mia!, the star-studded tribute to ABBA and platforms that, in it’s musical theatre incarnation, has romped around the stages of the world for nearly ten years. On a Greek island, Meryl Streep is preparing for her daughter’s wedding not realising that said daugter (Amanda Seyfried) has invited all three of her possible fathers (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard). All the ABBA hits are performed with considerable karaoke-style energy from the mostly non-singers and Streep provides a lesson for the likes of Robert De Niro that when you take on a frothy commercial comedy you don’t have to leave your talent in your trailer.
Finally, let us praise director Jay Roach who it would appear (on the evidence of Mike Myers’ new “comedy” The Love Guru) was the real talent behind the Austin Powers movies. Somebody with the unlikely name of Marco Schnabel directs this one and Myers produces, co-writes and stars in this facile vanity project about a self-help spiritualist who tries to become the new Deepak Chopra by saving the marriage of a star ice hockey player (Romany Malco) so he can then lead his team to “Stanley’s Cup”. The most diverting thing about this miss and miss affair is wondering why the Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t called the Toronto Maple Leaves — a mystery on a par with how this putrid and insulting effort ever got off the ground in the first place.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 23 July, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: Hancock was at the Embassy. So was Mamma Mia! which was not done any favours by a damaged digital soundtrack on the print supplied by Paramount — very disappointing for a worldwide day & date release. Meet Dave was screened by the lovely people at the Empire in Island Bay. The Love Guru was only on at Readings in Wellington and they don’t supply media with comp tickets. Normally, I would work around that by seeing a film with Graeme Tuckett of the Dominion Post (or, hell, even borrowing his pass on occasion) but this time that wasn’t feasible with the Festival kicking off at the same time. So, I’m ashamed to say I downloaded it. Yes, I torrented a file that had originally been a preview DVD supplied by Paramount Pictures, with the watermark pixellated out. I would apologise except I’m waiting for Mike Myers to apologise to me first for making me watch it. And by the way, torrenting ain’t free — The Love Guru would have cost me a couple of bucks for the bandwidth and it wasn’t worth that.
Earlier this year I arbitrarily decided that the Hannah Montana 3D concert movie was not cinema and chose not to review it. Now, a few short weeks later, I exercise my right to indulge in rank hypocrisy by stating that the U2 3D concert movie is cinema and, thus, belongs in this column. Pieced together from concerts in soccer stadia across Latin America (plus one without an audience for close-ups), U2 3D is an amazing experience and truly must be seen to be believed.
I hadn’t expected the new digital 3D medium to be used so expertly so soon but creators Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington have managed to make the entire stadium space manifest with floating cameras and intelligently layered digital cross-fading, giving you a concert (and cinema) experience that can not be imagined any other way. Even if you are not a U2 fan this film deserves to be seen as an example of the potential of 3D to transform the medium.