Four films are on the agenda this week and only time will tell this early in the season whether they are going to be genuine title contenders, gritty battlers hoping for a shot at mid-table obscurity or no-hopers doomed to a season of heartache and inevitable relegation. Please excuse the laboured football metaphors but the best of this week’s releases is set in the world of 1970s English football (all fags, booze and Deep Heat) and I let the mud get under my fingernails a bit.
Based on the 2006 surprise hit novel by David Peace, The Damned United is about the bizarre 44 days in 1974 when mercurial British football manager Brian Clough tried to manage Leeds United. Opinion is divided about whether the possibly mentally unbalanced Clough was actually trying to destroy a team he hated from the inside or whether he had genuinely let his ambition (and competitive streak) get the better of his judgement and the book successfully manages to get deep inside the head of a man who is unravelling under the pressure but the film isn’t as ambitious.
Australia (Evidently, modern Australia was built on racism, bigotry, corruption and alcohol). Not the débâcle that some media would have you believe, Straya is an old-fashioned epic that looks right at home on the big Embassy screen. If only Baz Luhrman the director had more confidence in Luhrman the writer, he might have avoided some of the more OTT moments by letting a good story tell itself. The film also suffers from a lack of Russell Crowe (not something you can say all that often). A rougher, nastier performance would have suited the character of the Drover better but might also provoked something a little less simpering from Nicole Kidman. Hugh Jackman is a fine enough actor (and is necessarily Australian), he’s just tragically miscast.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt is born old and grows physically younger all the while touching the lives of the people around him). Other commentators have already made the obvious comparisons between Benjamin Button and Forrest Gump, but the disappointment I felt on leaving the theatre was palpable. Despite the evident technical mastery on display and a winning performance by Brad Pitt, the film falls well short of its own expectations, in fact I would argue that Yes Man is actually more profound.
Yes Man(Jim Carrey finds love and fulfilment by not saying “no”). Proves that achieving modest aims is often more satisfying than falling short with more ambitious projects. The presence of Rhys Darby adds half a star and the wonderful Zooey Deschanel adds a whole extra one. Great indie soundtrack too.
Bolt (TV hero dog discovers he doesn’t actually have super powers). The most fun of the holidays can be found by slipping on the Readings’ polarized 3D glasses and enjoying the Disney cartoon romp Bolt. Unlike the lead-footed Desperaux, Bolt zips along with plenty of visual and verbal panache. The 3D isn’t too gimmicky and does the job of bringing you into the film (or if you prefer, making everyone else in the theatre disappear).
The Tale of Desperaux (big-eared mouse rescues Princess, saves kingdom). On Sunday the morning, of those queued at the Empire in Island Bay 100% of the kids chose Bolt, 100% of the reviewers chose The Tale of Desperaux and the kids got the better part of the deal. Alone in the cinema I killed time by trying to work out which actor’s voice I was listening to: anyone know what William H. Macy sounds like?
Waltz with Bashir (war veteran interviews old buddies to try and remember a suppressed past). The best film of the holidays actually opened before the break but after my last deadline of the old year. An animated exploration of one of the many Israeli wars against their neighbours and the tricks played by memory, WWB has many images that linger in the mind, ready to re-emerge whenever I see a newspaper headline about the current situation in Gaza.
The Spirit (rookie cop is brought back to life with an eye for the ladies). You won’t have seen a film quite like The Spirit before, not one that was any good at least. A cross between the stark, CGI-noir of Sin City with the corny humour of the 60s Batman, if you’ve ever wanted to see Samuel L. Jackson camping it up in full Nazi regalia this is the film for you. For the rest of us, not so much.
Bedtime Stories (Hotel handyman’s stories for his nephew and niece come true the next day). The need for a PG rating cramps Adam Sandler’s style somewhat and the money the producers obviously saved on cinematography went on some class Brit-actors including Richard Griffiths and Jonathan Pryce.
Twilight (Tale of a teenage girl arriving in a new town, befriended by, and then falling in love with, the local vampire). Evidently the Twilight young-adult novels are some kind of phenomenon but I was more than mildly diverted by the cinematic version. I liked the sense of place (the cold and rainy Pacific North West) and the lack of urgency about the story-telling – taking its own sweet time. The fact that the primary relationship is between an adolescent girl and a 100-year-old man (no matter how beautiful and young-looking) did manage to creep me out though, more so than the ‘cradle-snatching’ in Benjamin Button.
Frost/Nixon (Famous interview saves Frost’s career and finishes Nixon’s). A film of primary interest to 70s conspiracy theory buffs and actors looking for a masterclass. Frank Langella does Richard M. Nixon perfectly despite bearing little resemblance to the real person and Michael Sheen and Rebecca Hall add to their growing reputations. The Frost/Nixon interviews had plenty of drama of their own but this film pads it all out with events and conversations that didn’t happen.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Gap year American girls find love in Catalonia). There was a time when the name Woody Allen was a guarantee of high-brow quality and it’s a sign of the times that the excellent Vicky Cristina Barcelona is being sold to the public with no mention of his name at all. As it turns out VCB is pretty damn fine – a witty and intelligent script that plays out like a deftly dramatised New Yorker short story.
The Dinner Guest (Simple couple turn posh to impress the new Boss). The French movies we get here seem to be more obsessed with class than anything from England and The Dinner Guest is no exception. The twist in this case is that our heroes are so uncultured they could be, I don’t know, English. Betrays its stage origins so much so I might have been watching it at Circa.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 14 January, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: I am pleased to report that everything was well presented (the print for Vicky Cristina Barcelona might have been a little too rough for the big Embassy screen). The digital 3D Bolt had some strange masking issues which nobody at Readings could explain to me, and I only noticed during the closing credits so no de-merit points apply.
Here’s a New York Times profile of Frost/Nixon star, and great character actor, Frank Langella. Langella once bought the Broadway rights to the hit kiwi “comedy” Ladies’ Night and author Anthony McCarten told me once of sitting in Langella’s trailer in Hollywood collaborating on the American-ization of the play that may or may not have eventually become The Full Monty. Periodically, Langella would have to excuse himself and visit the set: “Excuse me, I have to go and make love to Ellen Barkin.”