As I sit here typing, I can hear the sounds of a Wellington summer all around me — the rain pouring on to the deck outside and the wind howling through the trees. Is this why local film distributors release so much product over the Christmas/New Year period? Perhaps it’s just climate and nothing to do with the Oscars at all? Anyhow, here’s a quick summary of what’s been dished out at local cinemas in descending order of greatness.
First up, Ang Lee’s glowing 3D adaptation of Yann Martell’s Life of Pi, storming the local box offices and deservedly so. Ravishing to look at — and making profound rather than novelty use of the extra depth available — Lee’s film manages to distil the essence of the book’s message even if the ambiguous ending proves less satisfying cinematically than literarily. Dreamy. I was particularly taken by the conscious recreation of the book’s original cover in one scene, even to the extent of changing the film’s aspect ratio for that single shot.
And so, after 191 films viewed and reviewed here I get to sum up the 2007 cinema year. As I said back in September it’s been a great year for good films but a poor year for truly great ones. Even my (obviously unimpeachable) Top Ten list contains only a few that I think will be regarded as classics in 20 years but these are all films that I’d happily see again or even own on DVD if the chance arises.
Best of the year turns out to be the most recent: Sean Penn’s Into the Wild is the real deal. As beautiful to look at and listen to as the finest art film, but remaining down to earth, it features a star-making performance from Emile Hirsch leading an ensemble of fine screen actors and it ultimately delivers a message that is completely different to the one you expect: He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.
The next two selections are also notable for being the lowest-grossing films of the year: the mesmerising Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait followed one man around a football pitch for an entire match and the wondrous and glowing aboriginal film Ten Canoes reminded us that great story-telling can be found anywhere, from the camp fire to the multiplex. The finest performances of the year from grown-ups were found in Sarah Polley’s Away From Her. Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie were a couple reeling from the impact of Alzheimer’s: the pressure of the disease slowly unravelling a relationship that on the surface seemed so pure. Best performance of the year from anyone was little Kolya Spiridonov as “orphan” Vanya in The Italian, determined to find his Mother wherever she may be rather than go to the west with new parents.
Best documentary turned out to be the unpromising Deep Water: a film about a yacht race that ended up being about the deepest, darkest secrets kept by a fragile human soul – it was even better second time around. Atonement was a sweeping and romantic drama showcasing the many skills of the latest generation of British movie craftspeople, not least director Joe Wright who, annoyingly, is only 36 years old. Best local film in an uneven year (and justifiably in this Top Ten) is Taika Waititi’s Eagle vs. Shark: funny and sweet and sad and the product of a singular vision rather than the committee that seems to produce so many New Zealand films.
My favourite commercial film of the year was the sweet-natured and very funny Knocked Up about a slacker and a career-girl getting to grips with responsibility, relationships and parenthood: He tangata, he tangata, he tangata once again. Finally, I’ve spent all year trying to justify leaving Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver out of this Top Ten with no luck whatsoever: the complete lack of flaws of any kind mean it gets in despite the fact that I didn’t love it like I did some others.
It’s a tough time for local paper film reviewers around the world. Cinema critics from publications like the Village Voice have been given the flick by penny-pinching publishers and even the Sunday Star-Times in Auckland has started running film reviews from sister papers in Australia rather than pay someone locally to represent you. So, I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to watch all these films on your behalf and want to thank the Capital Times for indulging my desire to cover everything rather than a select few releases. Thanks, also, to all the Wellington cinemas who have graciously hosted me despite my fairly constant bitching about standards. But, above all, thank you for reading. See you next year.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday January 2, 2008.
As recounted by celebrated neurologist Oliver Sacks in a recent New Yorker, amnesia is a fascinating condition. In the article he tells the story of classical musician Clive Wearing who, due to enchaphalitis more than 20 years ago, can retain new memories for no longer than a few seconds. The devastation of his case is transcended by two things: the love of his wife (which he is aware of even though he sees her as if for the first time every day) and his musical ability which remains complete.
In Hollywood, amnesia (like other disorders) is rarely portrayed as a tragic condition with serious and fascinating psychological impacts but instead is usually just a plot device. New thriller Unknown, starring Jim Caviezel, Greg Kinnear and Barry Pepper, tries a little bit of both.
In a remote abandoned chemical warehouse five men wake up with no memories of who they are or how they got there. Two of the group have been kidnapped, the others are the gang. But who?
While all the evidence points to Caviezel being one of the kidnappers (he wasn’t tied up at the beginning for a start) he doesn’t feel like one and, despite the shifting allegiances and Lord of the Flies power-plays, he attempts to bind the group together so they can all escape before the ringleader returns with the ransom. It’s an interesting existentialist provocation although, in the end, further psychological insight is sacrificed in favour of yet another plot twist.
Insight is what forensic psychologist Tilda Swinton is after in Stephanie Daley. Heavily pregnant, and still mourning the loss of a previous unborn child, she is asked to interview the eponymous schoolgirl (Amber Tamblyn) who is accused of concealing her own pregnancy and then murdering the new-born baby. Her examination will decide the fate of the timid young Christian girl who may indeed be too innocent to realize what a drunken date-rape can lead to. Stephanie Daley is a well acted drama with a fine sense of place, located in snowy upstate New York, and a lot going on under the surface.
Back at the multiplex, Rush Hour 3 is one of the poorest excuses for entertainment it is been my misfortune to witness. And to think that part-timer Chris Tucker was paid $25m to star in it (a fee which evidently did not require any time at the gym to prepare). Jackie Chan is showing his age too. Abject.
I spent most of the time watching La Vie En Rose thinking that I’d seen the film somewhere before. A beautifully art directed recreation of the life of a troubled artist from the wrong side of the tracks, devastated by drug addiction and guilt, it could have been Ray or Walk The Line except for the fact that little Edith Piaf didn’t have time for the redemption and triumph that the Hollywood biopics demand.
Piaf was an extraordinary character, a huge and vibrant voice in a frail and tiny frame. Writer-director Olivier Dahan makes consistently interesting choices (particularly a death-bed montage at the end which amazingly contains nothing that we have seen before) and Marion Cotillard plays Piaf with all the fierce and demented self-destructive energy she can summon up. She’s a force of nature and it is one of the performances of the year.
Finally, superb documentary Deep Water finally gets the promised commercial release and I urge you not to miss it. And, if you already saw it at the Festival check it out again as it’s quite a different film second time around.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 3 October, 2007.
Full disclosure: Unknown is distributed in New Zealand by Arkles Entertainment who pay me money to do stuff for them from time to time.
It’s Bourne-time again and rogue-agent Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is still trying to find out who he is, who erased his memory and why. A Guardian journalist (Paddy Considine) seems to know something so he takes the Eurostar to London and within 15 minutes of arriving the bodies are piling up.
In a cunning (not to mention potentially confusing) screenwriting coup the first two-thirds of Ultimatum actually takes place ‘before’ the final 15 minutes of Supremacy (the previous sequel) and the two time-lines meet briefly before Ultimatum picks us up and takes us to the final, fascinating, reveal: of a plot (as the saying goes) ripped from the headlines — and from post‑9/11 paranoid, punch-drunk, American foreign policy.