I really enjoyed Alexander Payne’s The Descendants – at least while I was watching it. Some films will do that to you, though. They push all sorts of groovy buttons while you are in the room but they diminish as you re-examine them. Connections that you thought were there turn out to be illusory, a series of satisfying emotional moments don’t cohere into something complete and you realise that you were enjoying it so much you wished it into something profound.
I blame Clooney. He’s such a watchable presence, always combining that Cary Grant movie star-ness with an underlying emotional frailty. His characters carry that square-jawed aspirational male solidity but rarely do they actually know what is going on or what to do. He specialises in people who are making it up as they go along and that has tremendous appeal – if George Clooney doesn’t know what he’s doing then none of us do.
This past week may have been the most consistently satisfying week of cinema-going since I started this journey with you back in 2006: seven very different films, all with something to offer. And no turkeys this week, so I’ll have to put the acid away until next week.
In completely arbitrary order (of viewing in fact), let’s take a look at them. In The Invention of Lying British comic Ricky Gervais directs his first big screen film (working without the creative support of usual partner Stephen Merchant) and it turns out to be a little bit more ambitious than most Hollywood rom-coms. In a world where no one has any conception of “untruth”, where the entire population makes each other miserable by saying exactly how they feel all the time and where there is no storytelling or fiction to give people an escape, Gervais’ character discovers he has the ability to say things that aren’t true and is treated as a Messiah-figure as a result. Everything he says, no matter how outlandish, is believed but he still can’t win the love of the beautiful Jennifer Garner.
Gervais is solidly funny throughout, and demonstrates even more of the depth as an actor that he hinted at in Ghost Town last year, but the direction is uneven – perhaps because both Gervais and co-writer-director Matthew Robinson are first-timers.
The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Day in 1979. They remained in the country, brutally suppressing the local resistance, until they were forced to leave in 1989: almost ten years of occupation that destroyed one country and ruined another. One side of the story was told in the recent film The Kite Runner: in it we saw a vibrant and cosmopolitan culture bombed back to the stone age by the Soviets and their equally one-eyed Taliban replacements.
For peaceniks like myself, the Soviet aggression was an inconvenient fact, difficult to acknowledge during our efforts to prevent nuclear annihilation at the hands of war-mongerers like Ronald Reagan. While we were marching for peace and disarmament, playboy Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) was secretly funding the Mujahideen insurgents to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, providing them with the weapons that would bring down the Russians.
With the help of a renegade CIA-man (wonderful Philip Seymour Hoffman), a Texan socialite (Julia Roberts), an Israeli spy (Ken Stott) and President Zia, dictator of Pakistan (Om Puri), Wilson persuaded, cajoled, threatened and coerced Congress to pay for all this – without them even knowing what it was for. Aaron Sorkin’s script is razor-sharp, often very funny, and does a great job of not spelling out all the lessons we should be learning. Charlie Wilson’s War may have brought about the end of the Cold War but it also opened up Afghanistan to the brutal fundamentalism of the Taliban, increased the influence of the Saudis in the region and indirectly led to the Iraqi poo-fight we are in now. As Wilson says, it’s all about the endgame.
How strange it is that two of my favourite films of the past twelve months should be about coming-to-terms with an unwanted pregnancy. Knocked Up, last year, was a broad comedy with a good heart and this year Jason Reitman’s Juno is even better: full of unexpected subtlety and nuance from a great cast working with a tremendous script from gifted newcomer Diablo Cody.
Like last year’s Hard Candy, Ellen Page plays a precocious teenager only this time she is not a homicidal revenge maniac. At only 16, she finds herself pregnant to the unlikely Paulie Bleeker (Superbad’s Michael Cera) and takes it upon herself to find appropriate parents for the little sea monkey growing inside her. The rich couple who sign on (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) look perfect, but looks can be deceiving. Juno is an easy film to love and I can see people going back to it again and again.
If a film has a good heart you can forgive its flaws, but what to do when it has no heart at all? Cloverfield is a modern-day retelling of a classic Hollywood monster movie and once again New York gets a terrible pounding. A group of self-absorbed yuppies are caught in the carnage and try to escape but manage to film the entire thing on their camcorder. Yeah right. Technically admirable, Cloverfield cleverly maintains the home video conceit but shaky-cam motion sickness got to me in the end.
Meet the Spartans is all flaw and no redeeming feature: another miss and miss spoof of last year’s hits. Soft targets include “Ugly Betty”, “American Idol”, Paris Hilton (yawn) and 300. The Spartans were gay, apparently. And not in a good way.
The Jane Austen Book Club is a well-intentioned adaptation of the popular novel about a group of women (and one dude) who meet once a month to talk about their favourite author. Writer and director Robin Swicord has assembled a fine ensemble cast including Maria Bello, Kathy Baker, Amy Brenneman and Jimmy Smits but too often they are representatives of people rather than people themselves and the film is un-persusasive. Actually, that’s not entirely true: the tentative relationship between Bello’s independent hound breeder and Hugh Dancy’s shy IT guru works nicely (for the most part).
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 30 January, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: Charlie Wilson’s War screened at a Reading Cinemas print check, 9am last Tuesday morning (thanks, Hadyn), sitting in the comfy Gold Lounge chairs; Juno screened on Sunday afternoon in Penthouse 1 (the original). It’s nice to see the Penthouse finally replacing the seats in Cinema 1 but perhaps they could think about replacing the sound system with something that wasn’t salvaged from a transistor radio. Meet the Spartans was seen at a busy Saturday matinée at Readings where the brain-dead teenagers around me hooted at every stupid, lame, joke. Cloverfield was in Readings digital cinema (Cinema 5) and looked sensational. Digital really is the future and it can’t come soon enough. I shudder to think how ill I might have felt if I’d seen Cloverfield from a wobbly, scratchy print. The Jane Austen Book Club was the second part of a Penthouse double-feature on Sunday, this time in Cinema 3 (the new one) which is splendid.