It’s one of those rare sunny Saturday afternoons in Wellington and I have work to do. But I’m not going to do that work because it doesn’t look like much fun and – for once – writing tiny film reviews seems like the better option.
Leanne Pooley made New Zealand’s most successful documentary ever in 2009 – The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls – and now turns her eye towards a mountain-sized Kiwi icon, Sir Ed Hillary and his ascent of Everest in 1953. Beyond the Edge is a limp title for the greatest adventure ever undertaken by a New Zealander and the film sometimes seems a bit bloodless too. The 3D recreations of Himalayan scenes – filling in the gaps in the archive of available still and moving picture elements – are thrilling though, especially if heights get your heart racing faster as they do I.
Ben Lewin’s The Sessions is a very rare beast – an American film that portrays human sexuality with honesty, sensitivity and no hint of prurience. (Actually, writer-director Lewin is a Polish emigré who grew up in Australia and – after a brief career as a barrister – went to England in 1971 to make television, so maybe it isn’t all that American.)
Poet Mark O’Brien was crippled with polio as a child and forced to spend more than 20 hours a day in an iron lung, practising his craft with a pencil held between his teeth, relying on caregivers for – almost – every important bodily function. Although he spent his life horizontal he wasn’t paralysed and he could still feel everything that was done to his body – a fact that a pretty nurse giving him his daily wash could probably testify to… As a red-blooded American male in his 30s, his head could get turned by a shapely figure even though his inexperience and disability meant he was totally lacking in romantic confidence.
Eat Pray Love is what they used to call, in the old days, a “women’s picture” and the advertisers who have paid good money to annoy audiences before the film make sure you know it: feminine hygiene products. A chromosomal anomaly on my part means that I’m not in the target market for this film (or the bestselling book that inspired it) but I’ll give it a go. Manfully.
Julia Roberts plays Liz, a phenomenally bad playwright and (supposedly) successful author who has a crisis and ends her (supposedly) unsatisfactory marriage to bewildered and hurt Billy Crudup. Never having lived without a man in her life she goes straight into a relationship with handsome and spiritual young actor James Franco.
Still unhappy, and a source of enormous frustration to her ethnically diverse best friend Viola Davis (Doubt), she uses her share of the Crudup divorce to take a year off and find herself – Italy for the food, India for the guru and Bali for Javier Bardem.
Never having seen an episode of Sex and the City on television, I’ll have to leave it to others to place it in context. From what I can gather, though, it appears to be about four women in Manhattan, not too bright, not too nice and not too deep, who are looking for love, success and shoes. The central figure in the group is Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) whose on-again, off-again relationship with Mr Big (Chris Noth) is about to become very much “on” with a huge society wedding and a penthouse 5th Avenue apartment with a closet bigger than the apartment building I live in. Amazingly, it is the closet that causes the most excitement, even when empty.
Meanwhile, Charlotte (Kristin Davis) is blissfully happy with her husband and adopted daughter Lily; Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) is somewhat less than happy to find out that her husband (David Eigenberg) has cheated on her and sex kitten Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is finding life in the shadow of a handsome daytime soap star to be less than fulfilling.
It all comes to a head at the wedding but not before (as well as during and after) we are forced to listen to many, many long conversations mostly about events we have just seen.
Untraceable is a perfectly serviceable thriller set in rainy Portland. Diane Lane is a widow working the FBI cyber-crime night-shift who discovers a crazed loon stringing up victims in front of a webcam. The more eyeballs he receives the faster his victim dies making everyone complicit in the eventual murder. Director Gregory Hoblit has an unparalelled tv background (“Hill Street Blues”, anyone?) and also directed the tight mind-games thriller Fracture last year and Untraceable is better than it sounds, effective and not nearly as exploitative as the trailer led one to believe.
Just like the U2 concert movie earlier this year, most of the people at the front of the Rolling Stones 2006 Beacon Theatre show (recorded for posterity by Martin Scorsese as Shine a Light) watched it via the screens on their cellphones. Heavens, people! Stop trying to record the life going on in front of you and just get in there and live it! (Written from the back row of a darkened cinema on a sunny day). Shine a Light shows the Stones off superbly – the sound is magnificent and the performance (from Jagger in particular) is stunning. Not enough Charlie Watts for my liking but that’s a minor quibble.
It doesn’t take long to establish why the latest George Clooney romantic-comedy has been buried either at sessions no one can get to or cinemas no one wants to visit. Leatherheads is an indulgent romp, feeding off Clooney’s nostalgia for old-time football and classic movies – a limited market. Set in 1925 at the birth of professional football, Clooney plays “Dodge” Connelly, an ageing player trying to keep his athletic dreams alive via the unprepossessing Duluth Bulldogs. As a last gasp attempt to get crowds to pro games he signs college star and war hero Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) to an exorbitant game by game contract and inadvertently changes the sport forever. He also gets hard-boiled newspaper-woman Lexie Littleton (a much less annoying than usual Renée Zellweger) who is trying to uncover the truth about Rutherford’s war record. Vaguely reminiscent of fast-paced verbal comedies like His Girl Friday and Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (and even The Sting), the best thing about Leatherheads is Randy Newman’s wonderful score.
Every great artist has major works and minor works. For Prince, for example, Sign O’ The Times is a major work and Alphabet StreetLovesexy isn’t. Mike Leigh’s major works include Naked, Secrets and Lies and All or Nothing and his minor list features Topsy-Turvy and now Happy-Go-Lucky, about primary school teacher Poppy (Sally Hawkins) and her family and friends. There’s not much story and not much development, but I think the reason why Happy-Go-Lucky fails is the lack of empathy for the characters (possibly caused by Leigh not having actors like Brenda Blethyn and Timothy Spall to make the emotional connections for him).
The second half of my contemporary working class London double-feature was Brick Lane, based on a novel I’ve actually read. On the death of her mother, Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee) is married off to priggish Karim (Christopher Simpson) in London where a life of grimy council flats and racist neighbours awaits. Clumsily condensed and fussily directed, Brick Lane never quite overcomes it’s own clichés.
Totally cliché-free and like nothing you have ever seen, Adam’s Apples is a very odd black comic fable about a white supremacist, Adam, sent to a remote country church to see out his parole period. There he meets a gaggle of eccentric, damaged or just plain barking characters, not least Ivan the priest (Mads Mikkelsen) who turns the other cheek so often it might as well be inside out. Full of surprises.
Finally, a couple of disposable (though probably not biodegradable) entertainments for the yoof: 21 is based on a true story about MIT students who use their phenomenal abilities at, er, counting to cheat the blackjack tables in Vegas. MIT is in Massachusetts and central character Ben (Across The Universe’s Jim Sturgess) is a fatherless scholarship boy so the film could have been called Good Will Counting. If it had any heart or soul or wit. 21 also features Kate Bosworth and Kevin Spacey in their thirdfilm together in less than four years.
And Prom Night is a run-of-the-mill slasher film featuring a high school science teacher with an infatuation for Brittany Snow (Hairspray). He kills all her family and then, three years later, escapes from detention to wreck her Prom party. Totally forgettable.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 11 June, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: All unremarkable screenings at cinemas notable for their attention to screening quality except for Adam’s Apples which is pretty scratchy and has a damaged soundtrack (Paramount) and Shine a Light whichlooked and sounded simply superb at the Embassy.
In 1997 two young hotshots stunned the film world by winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for their first produced script. Since then, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have suffered cruel mutterings ever since: that they couldn’t possibly have written such a good film by themselves and that if they did why haven’t they written anything else? Added to the indignity is the constant rumour that Hollywood script guru William Goldman netted a million dollars for three weeks work punching up Good Will Hunting on condition that he would forever deny it (which he denies).
In the 11 years since that win the career trajectories of Affleck and Damon have been public. Starring roles in blockbuster successes, high-profile romantic liaisons and (in the case of Affleck) a little bit of rehab. But there has been precious little original creative output from either party until the release of Gone Baby Gone, Affleck’s directorial debut (also co-written), which reached Wellington this week.
Directing is a real test of a filmmaker’s chops. Unlike a fudged writing credit you can’t fake being on a set (although a great crew, DP and editor can often cover a multitude of sins) but I’m thrilled to report that Affleck has produced a work of genuine lasting quality.
Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, Gone Baby Gone is set in the same Boston mean streets that Will (from Good Will Hunting) grew up in. If you saw Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River (also from a Lehane story) or Scorsese’s The Departed you’ll be familiar with the geographical territory, but Affleck’s eye is even more highly tuned to the neighborhood than those masters.
Four year old Amanda has been snatched from her home while her young single mother (sensational Amy Ryan) was getting stoned at a bar. The Police led by Morgan Freeman (himself suffering the loss of a child) are struggling to get traction from a community suspicious of uniforms. Young private investigator Patrick (Casey Affleck) and his partner Angie (Michelle Monaghan) are enlisted by the family to try and tease out some clues that would be unavailable to law enforcement.
And that’s when it gets really interesting – because Affleck chooses to downplay the thriller (or procedural) aspects of the piece in favour of character study and the unveiling of a terrible moral dilemma. And its a dilemma that remains perfectly balanced right to the end where, like Bogart’s Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, our honourable private eye is virtually alone, forced to live with the unending pain of doing the right thing.
The production line of asian-horror-remakes is still chugging along. The Eye (remake of a Hong Kong thriller) will be reviewed next week while Shutter (based on a Thai film called Shutter) has already been around a week or so. I find these things to be dreadfully tiresome for the most part, formulaic and predictable. In Shutter a newlywed American couple in Japan (Joshua Jackson and Rachael Taylor) find strange shadows appearing in their holiday snaps. It turns out there’s a spirit following them around, sneaking into their frames, spoiling their compositions. Well, their photography is about to be the least of their worries. Shutter is laughable for the first two-thirds but rescued by a well-manufactured dénouement so I ended up not hating it totally.
Owen Wilson has been in the news more for his mental health issues than his acting in recent months but it is worthwhile to be reminded that he remains one of the most watch-able actors of modern times and the pleasant enough comedy Drillbit Taylor comes to life whenever he is on the screen. He plays the eponymous Taylor, a military deserter and bum who takes on the job of protecting three nerdy kids from high school bullies. The kids are pretty funny too – like the kids from Superbad, only a few years younger.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 2 April, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: This is the first all-Readings edition of the weekly review since it commenced back in October 2006.