Is Gravity the first really new film of the 21st Century? I hazard it may be. It is certainly the first to harness the bleeding edge of the current technologies (performance capture, 3D, sophisticated robotic camera rigs) to serve a story that could only really exist in this form. Sure, once his ears had stopped bleeding Georges Meliés would totally recognise what director Alfonso Cuarón and his screenwriter partner (and son) Jonás are doing here, but he would be the first to put his hand up to say that he wouldn’t have been able to do it. Same for Kubrick, I suspect.
During a routine shuttle mission high above the Earth, astronauts Sandy Bullock and George Clooney are struggling to make some adjustments to the Hubble telescope when Houston (a nicely castEd Harris) warns them of some incoming debris. A Russian spy satellite has been destroyed by its owners causing a chain reaction as the little buggers kick-off all over the place. Tiny fragments of satellite travel at lethal speeds on roughly the same orbit and our heroes have to get to safety before they risk being vaporised.
It’s a little known fact in the movie industry that most cinema releases serve no greater purpose than to provide some advance publicity for an inevitable DVD release. This week seven new films were released into the Wellington market and barely more than a couple of them justified taking up space and time on a big movie screen.
First up, I Love You, Man – another in the endless parade of cash-ins on the formula literally coined by Judd Apatow with 40-year-old Virgin and Knocked Up. In this version usual side-kick Paul Rudd takes centre-stage as mild-mannered real estate agent Peter Klaven, engaged to be married but with no Best Man. All his friends are women, you see, and hijinks ensue as he attempts to generate some heterosexual male friendships and get some bro-mance in his life.
The key thing to point out here is that I love You, Man isn’t very funny and is very slow, but it will trot out the door of the video shop when the time comes, thanks to people like me giving it the oxygen of publicity. Dash it, sucked in again.
Keen-eyed readers will remember that a year ago I nominated The Golden Compass as my most-eagerly-awaited title of 2007. So, how did it pan out? I’m one of those who consider Philip Pulman’s His Dark Materials books to be the most important works of fiction produced in the last 20 years and I was surprised at how closely the film followed Book One (“Northern Lights”), possibly to it’s detriment. I was worried that a film with much exposition and detailed scene-setting might prove unwatchable but my companion (unfamiliar with the books) found it thrilling whereas I found it hard to let myself go and relax into it – maybe second time around.
Disney’s Enchanted saw Amy Adams reprise her Oscar-nominated wide-eyed naïf from Junebug. Unfortunately, as Princess Giselle from the animated kingdom of Andalasia, she couldn’t overcome the collective blandness of James Marsden as fictional-world love interest or Patrick Dempsey as real-world love interest; diversions were provided by Timothy Spall and the first of several animated chipmunks to land this Christmas.
The next fluffy rodents to arrive were the “singing” trio from Alvin and the Chipmunks, a recreation of someone’s favourite childhood pop butchers. Jason Lee is a waste of space as the songwriter who discovers them but the little critters themselves will keep your inner 8‑year-old amused for a while.
Also for the kids was the well-meaning but slightly po-faced Loch Ness monster fantasy The Water Horse, another high-class product of the family-friendly Walden Media/Weta/NZ confederation. A tremendous overseas cast led by Ben Chaplin and Emily Watson are joined by familiar and reliable local faces like Joel Tobeck and Geraldine Brophy.
National Treasure: Book of Secrets saw Nicolas Cage arise from his coma and make a little more of an effort than he did earlier this year in Next: it’s a noisy romp in which unlikely characters and implausible situations combine to bamboozle any seeker after logic. Helen Mirren, Harvey Keitel and Ed Harris add gravitas.
Will Smith returned in the oft-made man alone thriller I Am Legend, a perfect example of a poor script made palatable by classy direction and a superb leading man at the top of his game. Smith plays Lt-Col Robert Neville: decorated war veteran, ace micro-biologist and (judging by his address opposite the Washington Square Arch) heir to the Rockefeller fortune too. A genetically mutated virus that was supposed to cure cancer has gone rogue. 99% of the population has died, 1% have turned into bloodthirsty zombies and only one man is immune – handily for our purposes the one man who might know how to create a vaccine. Lots of frights, lots of great action and a magnificently seamless creation of abandoned New York make it certainly worth a look. At least until the last 15 minutes when, sadly, it just gets stupid.
Finally, to the arthouse: Sweet Land is an unheralded gem set in beautiful rural Minnesota among the Northern European immigrants who were making their lives on that land in the first quarter of the last century. Elizabeth Reaser plays German immigrant Inge who travels from Germany to meet Lars, the man who is to be her husband. But she speaks no English, has no papers and the locals are suspicious of Germans – the marriage is forbidden. True love conquers all but not before the bitter sweet tale ties three generations and the fertile farmland together. Recommended.
A monument to the Digital Intermediate Colourist’s art, The Kite Runner is an adaptation of the beloved novel by Khaled Hosseini, directed by Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, currently shooting the new Bond). Affecting but manipulative, The Kite Runner is a story of guilt and redemption (usually catnip to me) but in the end it relied too much on outrageous coincidence to be truly satisfying. Great performances from Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada as Young Hassan and Homayoun Ershadi as Baba mean it is never less than watchable.
Priceless is yet another French film about mistaken identity and class restrictions: they seem to be more obsessed about class and status than the poms. Gad Elmaleh (The Valet) and Amelie’s Audrey Tautou play two ambitious individuals from the serving class: he walks dogs and tends bar at a flash hotel and she is a gold digger trying to snare a rich old husband. The fact that both actors are of North African descent (and therefore are excluded from the ranks of the real French who sit at the top table) is either a subtle stroke of genius or dodgy racism depending on the degree of Christmas spirit you want to demonstrate.
Finally, The Darjeeling Limited is a winning tale of lost young men, searching for a father figure, from the modern day poet of father figure searches, Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic). There’s no great thematic or stylistic leap made by Anderson here but he is honing this stuff to a fine art. Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman are three brothers on a spiritual journey across India but it is the recently deceased father who casts the longest shadow. Well made and often very funny, The Darjeeling Limited is very easy to enjoy and Anderson’s taste is exquisite.
To be printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday, 16 Jan, 2008. I am taking a weekend off, away from the Internet and cinema so will catch up with the week’s new releases next week.
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.