This past week may have been the most consistently satisfying week of cinema-going since I started this journey with you back in 2006: seven very different films, all with something to offer. And no turkeys this week, so I’ll have to put the acid away until next week.
In completely arbitrary order (of viewing in fact), let’s take a look at them. In The Invention of Lying British comic Ricky Gervais directs his first big screen film (working without the creative support of usual partner Stephen Merchant) and it turns out to be a little bit more ambitious than most Hollywood rom-coms. In a world where no one has any conception of “untruth”, where the entire population makes each other miserable by saying exactly how they feel all the time and where there is no storytelling or fiction to give people an escape, Gervais’ character discovers he has the ability to say things that aren’t true and is treated as a Messiah-figure as a result. Everything he says, no matter how outlandish, is believed but he still can’t win the love of the beautiful Jennifer Garner.
Gervais is solidly funny throughout, and demonstrates even more of the depth as an actor that he hinted at in Ghost Town last year, but the direction is uneven – perhaps because both Gervais and co-writer-director Matthew Robinson are first-timers.
Compelled once again by Christmas deadlines to sum up the year in cinema, I have been thinking a lot about how some movies stay with you and some don’t, how some movies have got average reviews from me this year but have grown in my affections, and how there are some films you want to see again and some you’re not so bothered about – even when you admire them.
So I’m going to divide my year up in to the following categories: Keepers are films I want to own and live with. Films I can expect to watch once a year – or force upon guests when I discover they haven’t already been seen. Repeats are films I wouldn’t mind seeing again – renting or borrowing or stumbling across on tv. Enjoyed are films I enjoyed (obviously) and respected but am in no hurry to watch again.
The “keepers” won’t come as any great surprise: The Coen’s No Country for Old Men and PT Anderson’s There Will Be Blood were both stone-cold American masterpieces. NCFOM just about shades it as film of the year but only because I haven’t yet watched TWBB a second time. Vincent Ward’s Rain of the Children was the best New Zealand film for a very long time, an emotional epic. Apollo doco In the Shadow of the Moon moved and inspired me and I want to give it a chance to continue to do so by keeping it in my house. Finally, two supremely satisfying music films: I could listen to Todd Haynes’ Dylan biopic I’m Not There. again and again, and watching it was was much funnier than I expected. Not minding the music of U2, I didn’t have a big hump to get over watching their 3D concert movie, but what a blast it was! Immersive and involving, it was the first truly great digital 3D experience. For the time being you can’t recreate the 3D experience at home so I hold out for a giant cinema screen of my own to watch it on.
Next layer down are the films I wouldn’t mind watching again, either because I suspect there are hidden pleasures to be revealed or because a second viewing will confirm or deny suspected greatness. Gritty Romanian masterpiece 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days has stayed with me since I saw it in March. Be Kind Rewind was rich enough (and good-hearted enough) to deserve another look. Martin McDonagh’s bizarre hitman fantasy In Bruges rocked along at such a decent clip I need to see it again to make sure I didn’t miss any of it’s eccentric pleasures. I liked and respected the Coen’s other 2008 entry Burn After Reading more than every other critic so a second viewing would be useful, if only to confirm that I appreciated it better than everyone else did… Or not.
If I could just clip the Robert Downey Jr. bits from Tropic Thunder it would be a keeper, instead I look forward to seeing it again over Christmas. The same goes for the entire first act of WALL•E which I could watch over and over again. Sadly the film lost some of that magic when it got in to space (though it remains a stunning achievement all the same).
Into the “Enjoy” category: Of the documentaries released to cinemas this year, three stood out. The affectionate portrait of Auckland theatre-maker Warwick Broadhead, Rubbings From a Live Man, was moving and its strangeness was perfectly appropriate. Up the Yangtze showed us a China we couldn’t see via the Olympics juggernaut and Young at Heart is still playing and shouldn’t be missed.
Mainstream Hollywood wasn’t a complete waste of space this year (although the ghastly cynical rom-coms 27 Dresses and Made of Honour would have you believe otherwise). Ghost Town was the best romantic comedy of the year; The Dark Knight and Iron Man were entertaining enough; I got carried away by Mamma Mia and the showstopping performance by Meryl Streep; Taken was energetic Euro-pulp; Horton Hears a Who! and Madagascar 2 held up the kid-friendly end of the deal (plus a shout-out for the under-appreciated Space Chimps) and, of course, Babylon A.D. (just kidding, but I did enjoy it’s campy insanity).
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 31 December, 2008.
Note that I deliberately avoid choosing Festival-only films as directing people towards films they can’t easily see is just cruel.
Showcasing the Taranaki landscape as well as the people, Show of Hands has an ambition as small as the town but, sadly, doesn’t bear up under too much scrutiny. A struggling car yard owner (StevenStephen Lovatt) runs a hands-on-the-car promotion as a last ditch attempt to save his business and a handily representative cross-section of New Zealand society turns out to have a go.
The three main contenders are Melanie Lynskey’s single-mum (who needs the car to ferry her wheelchair-bound daughter about); Matt Whelan’s young trustafarian and Craig Hall’s cold-fish businessman who may or may not need the dough to solve his business problems or may or may not just be an ultra-competitive egotistical jerk. The whole film suffers from a similar lack of clarity which makes suspending disbelief a struggle. The acting is fine however and Whelan in particular is excellent – one for the future there.
Cursed with a not-very-promising title, and a high concept premise (obnoxious dentist dies for seven minutes on an operating table and wakes up with the ability to see the ghosts of Manhattan), David Koepp’s Ghost Town turns out to be one of the mainstream pleasures of the year. I’m going to assume that every Hollywood rom-com with an English lead was written for Hugh Grant, but we can be grateful that he has all-but retired as it gives Ricky Gervais a meaty role which he grabs with both hands. Gervais may not have much range as an actor, but he does have depth and I found myself being unaccountably moved by a film that always delivers a little more than it says on the tin.
If the remarkable success of the 48 Hour Film Competition has proved anything in recent years it is that making films is now as much of a community experience as watching them and it’s that same hand-made, JFDI, aesthetic that Michel Gondry celebrates in the very special Be Kind Rewind.
While minding doddery Danny Glover’s ramshackle New Jersey video (and thrift) store, Mos Def discovers that all the precious VHS tapes have been erased by magnetic doofuss Jack Black. To save the business our heroes re-make the contents of the store using only a handycam and their ingenuity, eventually enlisting the whole town. I loved Be Kind Rewind and you’ll be honouring the spirit of the film if you see it at a theatre with a bunch of strangers.
Mirrors is yet another re-make of an Asian horror flick and there ain’t much water left in that particular well. Kiefer Sutherland plays a troubled NY ex-cop who takes a security guard job at an abandoned department store (Romanian and Hungarian studios plus a tiny bit of stock footage stand in for Manhattan). On his first night on the job the mirrors start to freak him out and two hours of excruciating exposition follow.
Also shot on a European sound stage, though a second unit did make it through JFK to shoot some scenery, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People is an amiable little romp starring Simon Pegg as a try-hard English journalist trying to make it as a celebrity writer on a top New York magazine. Pompous yet insecure, Pegg’s Sidney Young (loosely based on author Toby Young whose book was itself loosely based on his own short Manhattan career) cuts a slapstick swathe through high society. Pegg is ok (but he’s no Ricky Gervais, see above) but Megan Fox as movie star Sophie has the worst skin I’ve ever seen on a Hollywood leading actress.
Writer-Director Guy Ritchie’s dreadful faux-cockney purple prose has been drooled all over the interminable RocknRolla, a boysie bit of rough and tumble that’s the cinematic equivalent of someone grabbing you around the neck and rubbing their knuckles into your skull. The sloppy plot involves a Russian oligarch’s lucky painting, an old school East End gangster on the way out, a rock star faking his own death and a big black ticket tout with a taste for Jane Austen.
Ritchie does have an eye for young talent (Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels made Jason Statham a star): look out for Toby Kebbell (the junkie rock star Johnny Quid) and Tom Hardy (Handsome Bob), just don’t look out for them in this.
Finally, there’s not many films that wouldn’t be improved with the addition of the wonderful Jim Broadbent, and he really shines in And When Did You Last See Your Father?, a worthy brit-lit adaptation that also stars Colin Firth. Broadbent plays the father in question, a jovial egotist who doesn’t realise that his over-abundant joie-de-vivre is crushing the spirits of those around him. Firth is poet Blake Morrison, coming to terms with his father’s terminal illness with the help of plenty of flashbacks to his 60s childhood. Director Anand Tucker builds his case carefully until a splendidly moving finale draws a line under a very satisfying film.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 19 November, 2008.
Nature of conflict: I produced a couple of plays for Anthony McCarten back in the early 90s – “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and the revival of “Yellow Canary Mazurka”.
Notes on screening conditions: Ghost Town, How to lose Friends…, RocknRolla and Mirrors were all at Readings public sessions (all fine except How to Lose Friends… was slightly out of frame meaning some of the titles spilled on to the masking); Be Kind, Rewind was at the Paramount and the first half was 20% out of focus and the whole film was about 20% too quiet; Show of Hands was a late night watermarked DVD from Rialto Entertainment and And When Did You Last See Your Father? was at the Embassy during the Film Festival back in July.