Between its heralded US release in September last year and its arrival in a (very) limited number of New Zealand cinemas this weekend, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master seems to have been transformed from masterpiece and annointed Best Picture contender to also-ran, disappointing scores of local PTA fans in the process, many of whom were crushed that we weren’t going to see the film in the director’s preferred 70mm format. Turns out it was touch and go whether we were going to see it on the big screen at all.
Anderson’s previous film, There Will Be Blood, was a close-run second to No Country For Old Men in my 2007 pick of the year, and his back catalogue is as rich as anyone else of his generation – Boogie Nights, Magnolia and even Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love. Like Blood, The Master is painted on a big canvas. Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, an alcoholic and self-hating WWII veteran, stumbling between misadventures when he stows away on the San Francisco yacht commanded by academic, author and mystic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd combines rudimentary psychotherapy with hypnosis to persuade gullible followers that their past lives can be used to transform their disappointing present.
I was really enjoying Inception until I woke up. Actually, that’s not true. Unlike my companion, the Sandman didn’t come to rescue me from Christopher Nolan’s bombastic blockbuster and I had to sit through all two and a half hours of it, wondering what all the fuss was about.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays a corporate spy who specialises in entering people’s dreams and discovering their secrets. This is evidently a complex technology that requires one dreamer to design the location (it has to be fake because not knowing whether you are awake or dreaming carries massive risks to one’s sanity), one dreamer to lead the subject, the subject themselves and (sometimes) a forger who can take on the shapes and characteristics of other people.
There’s a lot of fighting in these dreams as the subject’s subconscious sees the invasion and tries to fight it off like white blood cells. But, you know when in your own dreams you try and hit someone and they end up being really weak marshmallow punches? That’s how the antibodies shoot so it takes quite a lot of bullets before one will actually hit you. And when one hits you and you die, in the real world you wake up so it’s really like a video game with multiple lives.
Twickenham in 1961 might well have been the most boring place on Earth. The 60s haven’t started yet (according to Philip Larkin the decade wouldn’t start until 1963 “between the end of the Chatterley Ban/and The Beatles first LP”) but the train was already on the tracks and could be heard approaching from a distance if you listened closely enough. Middle-class teenager Jenny is studying hard for Oxford but longing for something else – freedom and French cigarettes, love and liberation.
In Lone Scherfig’s An Education (from a script by Nick Hornby; adapted from Lynn Barber’s memoir), Jenny is luminously portrayed by newcomer Carey Mulligan (so adorable that if she’s ever in a film with Juno’s Ellen Page we’ll have to recalibrate the cuteness scale to accommodate them both) and she gets a hint of a way out of suburban English drudgery when she meets cool businessman David (Peter Sarsgaard) and he whisks her off her feet, to the West End and to Paris.
One of the first films I reviewed when I started here was an charming documentary called Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey in which Canadian fans Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen travelled the world talking to other fans (and the stars they worship) about what it is that makes metal great. In that film they interviewed Iron Maiden’s vocalist Bruce Dickinson and they must have made a decent impression as Maiden (and EMI) have given them a decent budget and loads of access for them to document their Somewhere Back in Time tour (around the world last year).
And what a wheeze the tour turned out to be. Chartering a 757 from Dickinson’s other employer, taking half the seats out so the gear and set could fit, flying the whole show between gigs with Dickinson piloting the whole time – a bunch of pasty middle-aged English lads having the time of their lives across half the world. The only real drama comes when drummer Nicko McBrain gets hit on the wrist by a golf ball, but it doesn’t matter because the joy of seeing a band really moving audiences (in places like Mumbai and Costa Rica) is the reason for this film to exist. And this film rises above above other recent great rock movies like U2-3D and Shine a Light – because it’s about the fans as well as the band and it recognises the complex interdependence of the relationship.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall is an ideal post-Festival palate cleanser: a saucy comedy fresh off the Judd Apatow production line (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up). Here he gives the spotlight to one of his supporting players: Jason Segal (Knocked Up) plays tv composer Peter who within two minutes of the start of the film is dumped by tv star Sarah M. (Kristen Bell from “Veronica Mars”). He goes to Hawaii to recover only to discover that his ex is also there – with her new English rock star boyfriend. Very funny in parts, surprisingly moving at times thanks to a heartfelt performance from big lump Segal, FSM gets an extra half a star for featuring professional West Ham fanRussell Brand, playing a version of his sex-addicted stage persona.
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.