There has been much discussion in the circles in which I move about the quantity of films released to local cinemas. Not only are there too many films coming out every week — too many for each one to generate much heat at any rate — but the ones that are coming out aren’t always the right ones. Smaller distributors are pushing everything they have into the system regardless of their potential and some of the majors — with bigger marketing budgets and overheads to worry about — are ditching their arthouse and mid-range titles and pushing them straight to home video.
[pullquote]Who says Americans can’t do Shakespeare? Nonsense.[/pullquote]At the same time, multiplex screens are full of big budget commercial gambles, with box office estimates based on local history and the hope that Twilight-like lightning might strike twice. See which ones in the list below fit into which category. (Clue: if your film has no hi-res English language poster available online and your only official website is in Japanese, maybe you can’t really support it in NZ cinemas.)
Benoît Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen goes behind the scenes of Louis XVI and — more specifically — Marie Antoinette’s court during the dark days of the revolution as the regime tottered and fell. We see these events from the point of view of Her Majesty’s book reader, a young servant played by Léa Seydoux. Initially besotted by the Queen (Diane Kruger), her faith is shaken by the revelations of corruption, waste and — intriguingly — Antoinette’s relationship with the duchesse de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen).
No sounds like the kind of thing a toddler in the middle of a tantrum might say, while stomping around your lounge room at bedtime. At the cinema, though, the tantrum belongs to the corrupt dictatorship of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, forced through international pressure to let others play in his sandpit. In 1988 he announced a referendum that would demonstrate — by fair means or foul — that the people loved him, weren’t interested in democracy and that those who thought different were nothing but communists and terrorists.
15 years after he and his military junta overthrew the legitimate left-leaning government of Salvador Allende, the question in the referendum would be a simple one: “Yes” to keep the dictatorship and “No” for a return to free elections. No, Pablo Larraín’s brilliant movie, looks at the campaign from the perspective of an ad guy — a Mad Man — played by Gael García Bernal, who harnessed the latest corporate sales techniques and the power of television to change the direction of a nation.
I love it when a film raises the stakes. Done with wit, it can drag you back in to a film you might have been drifting away from. Done with smarts, like Susanne Bier’s Danish drama In a Better World, it can drag you to the edge of your seat.
About two-thirds in to the film there’s an event that forces a central character to confront his own principles — values he has been carefully (and selflessly) teaching his kids — and he has to question whether those principles are really doing him any good in a world that refuses to honour them in return.
The character is Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a Swedish doctor working in a sub-Saharan refugee camp where — in addition to the usual litany of drought-related problems — he’s patching up pregnant women brutalised by the local warlord. He’s troubled by the circumstances but smug about his role in the aid process. Perhaps he should be paying more attention to back home though, as his oldest son Elias (Markus Rygaard) is being bullied at school and taken under the wing of cold-eyed psychopath Christian (brilliant William Jøhnk Nielsen), grieving the cancer death of his mother and taking his quiet rage out on the world.
With the big budget Hollywood remake already in production (starring Rusty Crowe), Anything for Her looked like it might have had some entertainment potential but I’m sad to report that it never gets up to speed.
The blissful lives of school teacher Julien (Vincent Lindon) and Lisa (Diane Kruger) are, as they say, shattered when Lisa is wrongly convicted of murder. With no possibility of legal redress, and a rapidly deteriorating mental state, it looks like Diane won’t be able to stand 20 years in the big house and Julien has to act to save her and the family – the two of them plus cute little Oscar played by the wonderfully named Lancelot Roch.
Somewhat implausibly, Julien hatches a plan to boost his Mrs from jail and escape the country to somewhere with no extradition. Despite no previous criminal experience, Julien obsesses over all the details until his plan comes together. Advice from a local criminal turned author (“don’t improvise if you don’t have the criminal mindset”) has to be ignored when circumstances change suddenly.
I can see this working with Crowe (and Elizabeth Banks and Liam Neeson). These sorts of tales told by Hollywood are always barely a step away from pure fantasy and it’s much easier to get carried along by the hokum. The French version is so grounded in a recognisable reality that the plot and characters don’t make any sense at all. Lindon is a great actor. He’s soulful, ruggedly good looking, and deeply intense but, paradoxically, the more real he tries to make the character the less you can believe what’s going on. Because it’s preposterous.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 28 April, 2010.
What I did on my holidays by Dan Slevin (aged 38 and a half).
After a few days off between Christmas and New Year I launched back in to the swing of cinema things with a “Disfunctional Royal Family” double-feature of The Queen (Stephen Frears) and Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola) at the Penthouse. Helen Mirren is wonderful in an endlessly fascinating tale of an institution realising that it that may have outstayed it’s welcome, while Kirsten Dunst radiates beauty (despite those wonky teeth) as the last queen of France. The problem with Marie Antoinette is that the protagonist doesn’t do any actual protagonising which means that we get a lot of beautiful tableaux but very little drama.
Ed Harris turns in a bravura performance as Ludwig Van Beethoven in Copying Beethoven (Agnieszka Holland) along with an almost impossibly beautiful Diane Kruger who plays the young composition student helping him complete his final masterpieces. The music is sensational. Late in 2006, the gifted Argentine director Fabián Bielinsky (Nine Queens) passed away leaving us The Aura as his valediction. Starring the redoubtable Ricardo Darin as an epileptic taxidermist, The Aura is moody and evocative but wasn’t quite enough to keep this reviewer awake on a wet Wednesday afternoon. If life wasn’t so short I’d give it another crack as I’m sure there was something going on underneath but it was soooo sloooow.
The five year old I took to Happy Feet (George Miller) was still singing songs from the film that night so very much mission accomplished on that front. It’s a hugely entertaining collection of set-pieces which kind of fall apart when the necessities of plot intervene and it turns uncomfortably dark, very quickly. Miller has had an interesting career: starting out as a medical doctor he then made the Mad Max films, kick-started the CGI talking animals trend with Babe and now tap-dancing penguins. Talking of talking animals, Charlotte’s Web (Gary Winick) managed to squeeze an unwilling tear out of me despite the feeling of manipulation throughout.
On a more grown-up level (though not by much) The Valet (Francis Veber) didn’t pull up any trees and in fact ended so suddenly I thought there was a reel missing. The most appealing character in the flick, Alice Taglioni as the super-model, gets no closure to her story. She’s left alone in her apartment crying. What’s that about? The Prestige (Christopher Nolan) was always going to appeal to me due it’s subject matter and the presence of perfect distraction Scarlett Johansson and it delivered. The film is about stage magic and uses stage magic principles to tell it’s very twisty story – though some might say it has one twist too many.
Babel (Alejandro González Iñárritu) is one of the best films of this or any year, a serious, meditative snapshot of our world thorough a stranger’s eyes. Four stories are told in parallel, three immediately linked and the connections with the fourth gently revealed by the end. It has a kind of science-fiction feel about it as we see four very different world cultures presented as if they could be other planets, alien territory yet eerily familiar. If I had stumbled across Four Last Songs (Francesca Joseph) on television where it belongs I would have changed channels after about five minutes, so I did the cinema equivalent instead and went looking for some sunshine.
Lastly, I had the mixed pleasure of a “Sadistic Violence” double-feature at Readings: Saw III (Darren Lynn Bousman) and Apocalypto (Mel Gibson). Crikey. What possesses a screenwriter or director to sit in front of a virgin white piece of paper and then use it to dream up ways of dismembering people? Funnily enough, Saw III is the more respectable piece of work as it doesn’t try and pretend to be anything more than it is, while Apocalypto is the usual Hollywood rubbish dressed up in National Geographic clothing. Gibson is a dangerous extremist (not just in purely cinematic terms) and the foul politics of Apocalypto are not made up for by the boisterous filmmaking.
Not seen before deadline: Heart of The Game (Ward Serrill); Open Season (Roger Allers, Jill Culton, Anthony Stacchi).
UPDATE: Evidently there is no Capital Times this week so it looks like this opus will remain online only. You lucky, lucky people… Six more films are released this week and the world continues to turn relentlessly onwards.
UPDATE: Printed in the Capital Times, Wellington, Wednesday January 24, 2007.