Whatever they are paying Robert Downey Jr. to play Iron Man, it is is worth every penny. Iron Man 3, the third instalment in his own branch of the Marvel Universe series that also features Captain America, The Mighty Thor and The Hulk is hurtling towards a billion dollars of box office revenues and might just have broken even on the $200m production costs by the time you read this.
I’m not sure that there is a better technician in commercial cinema than Downey. Even when he is poorly — or not even — directed in films like the last Sherlock Holmes or the last Iron Man, he is never less than watchable, but when he is challenged by a director and the material he is up there with the best ever. The name Cary Grant just popped in to my head and I think the comparison is reasonable.
Kiwi crowd-pleasers don’t come much more crowd-pleasing than Tearepa Kahi’s Mt. Zion, featuring TV talent quester Stan Walker in a star-making performance as a working class kid with a dream. Slogging his unwilling guts out picking potatoes in the market gardens of 1979 Pukekohe, nervously making the first steps in a music career that seems impossible and fantasising about meeting the great Bob Marley, Walker’s Turei is out of step with his hard working father (Temuera Morrison) and the back-breaking work.
When a local promoter announces a competition to be the support act for the reggae legend’s forthcoming concert at Western Springs, Turei tests the boundaries of family and friendship to get a shot at the big time. The bones of the story are familiar, of course, but there’s meat on the bones too — a slice of New Zealand social history with economic changes making life harder for a people who don’t own the land that they work. Production design (by Savage) and authentic-looking 16mm photography all help give Mt. Zion a look of its own and the music — though not normally to my taste — is agreeable enough.
Firstly I want to apologise that there is no review of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life in this week’s column. I saw it during the Festival and like most audiences was perturbed, baffled, challenged and ultimately awed but I needed a second screening to make sense of it. Arguably less sense rather than more sense was what I would be aiming for.
The film opened commercially this weekend at a couple of locations but neither of them offered the sort of grandeur (i.e. screen size) and quality (i.e. DCP 2k digital transfer of the kind I am starting to love) so I thought I would hold off until it reaches a few more screens. I know — I sound like a pompous ass but that’s as genuine a response to The Tree of Life as I can muster. A more considered response next week.
But that omission gives me more room for the rest of this week’s releases. Florian Habicht’s Love Story charmed (most) of the Film Festival, including your correspondent. Habicht’s indefatigable curiosity and demonstrable love of people powers this strange romantic comedy made while he was living in Manhattan on an Arts Foundation residency.
Steve Martin (right) uses the 90 per cent of his brain that isn’t required for acting in Bringing Down the House to write Don Cheadle’s Traitor.
Actually, not so much second thoughts as something interesting discovered after the the review went to print.
In the blog roll to the right you will find a link to the Creative Screenwriting podcast, which is never less than interesting despite host Jeff Goldsmith’s sometimes annoying ability to miss the interesting follow-up question.
Anyway, I make a point of not listening to a podcast until after I’ve seen and reviewed a particular film — I try and watch everything unmediated by anything more than the trailer — but that sometimes means I miss a gem of context that might illuminate (or add value in some other way).
Two hitmen (Gleeson and the excellent Colin Farrell) have been sent to the sleepy Belgian town of Bruges to lie low after a job has gone wrong. Once there, they are supposed to enjoy the many historic and cultural treats of the beautifully preserved walled medieval city while waiting for further instructions. This suits Gleeson (older, wiser, worldly) but Farrell, fractious after the terrible stuff-up, wants booze, birds, drugs and trouble. And even in Bruges he finds some of all of it.
No Country for Old Men is essential cinema in two senses of the word. First and foremost you must see it, probably more than once. But it is also cinema reduced to its essence. Everything contributes: Cormac McCarthy’s respectfully adapted original novel; beautifully composed images superbly photographed by Roger Deakins (the only creative on the project not named Coen); editing that could be a film school in a box. The standard musical soundtrack is replaced by the music of the everyday: footsteps, coffee pots, car engines, gun fire.
A hunter (Josh Brolin) stumbles across a wilderness drug deal gone wrong: many corpses, a flatbed full of drugs and briefcase full of money. He takes the money hoping to start a new life away from the West Texas trailer park he inhabits with Trainspotting’s Kelly MacDonald. But instead of a winning lottery ticket he has unleashed the epitome of cinema badass-ery: Javier Bardem as an angel of vengeance determined to retrieve the cash by any means necessary.
All the performances are wonderful but the heart of the film is Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Ed Bell. Always (aggravatingly) a couple of steps behind he is a good man ill-at-ease with the sheer, inexplicable, evil he is confronted with. A masterpiece.
Josh Hartnett plays another small town sheriff, out-gunned and out-matched, in 30 Days of Night. He runs Barrow, the northern-most town in Alaska, so far north that one month of the year is spent in darkness. This is the perfect setup for a smart vampire to take advantage of: 30 days of feeding with no enforced hibernation and a bunch of unsavoury characters (well-led by Danny Huston) certainly go to town. Entertaining and stylish, 30 Days goes about its work (within its genre limitations) respectably enough.
I’m beginning to think that George Clooney is so good that his presence has actually made some films seem much better than they actually are: Syriana would be an example. This theory comes in to focus when discussing Michael Clayton, another Oscar contender from first-time director Tony Gilroy. Clooney plays the eponymous legal fixer, a middle-aged man losing his bearings: his moral compass is as adrift as the malfunctioning satnav in his Merc. He is trying to fix a rapidly unravelling case defending a dodgy agri-chemical company when he realises that he is probably on the wrong side but his tenuous personal situation doesn’t give him the freedom to do the right thing. He is conflicted, in other words, and Clooney plays that conflict superbly. But, while George is acting his heart out, the rest of the film doesn’t quite measure up. Performances misstep and the plot weighs the themes down more heavily than it needs to. A good film but not a great one.
Leonardo DiCaprio for the Nobel Peace Prize? Following in the footsteps of Al Gore’s activist phenomenon An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, DiCaprio stakes his own claim with a documentary about environmental destruction and the urgent need for change: The 11th Hour. Sadly for the earnest DiCaprio, there’s nothing here we haven’t seen or heard before and (despite his star power) he is an unconvincing presenter. Perhaps he should have stayed behind the camera and paid Morgan Freeman to front it — he is God after all.
Talk to Me is an entertaining and moving little film, destined to be overwhelmed by the heavyweight Oscar contenders opening all around it. Oblivion wouldn’t be a fair outcome though and if you find yourself with the time and inclination to give it a try you won’t be disappointed. Always reliable Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda) plays real-life Washington DC radio star and activist Ralph Waldo “Petey” Green and the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofer (Dirty Pretty Things and American Gangster) is his best friend and Programme Director Dewey Hughes. The racial powderkeg that is DC in the 60’s is well recreated on a limited budget but it is the relationship between these two very different men that works best.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 6 February, 2008.
Special thanks to D at the Embassy for letting me go back to see No Country a second time before deadline.