The theme for the week seems to be romance and some of the finest love stories of recent (or in fact any) year have just made their way to our screens. Firstly, The Young Victoria where Emily Blunt (Sunshine Cleaning, The Devil Wears Prada) deservedly takes centre stage for the first time as the eponymous royal. Even reviewers are entitled to a little prejudice, and I wasn’t expecting much from this going in, but I left the cinema full of admiration for an intelligent script, perfectly-pitched direction and consistently able performances from expected and unexpected quarters.
Blunt’s Victoria is a headstrong teenager, frustrated by the competing political interests that push and pull her. Only Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (whose suit was instigated by yet more euro-intrigue) seems to see the real Victoria and offers the new Queen support and independence. The relationship between Blunt’s Victoria and Rupert Friend’s initially nervous but ultimately self-assured Albert is charming, natural and moving and the background of political intrigue and machinations provide necessary (but not overwhelming) context. The Young Victoria is a film that, and I hope this makes sense, is perfectly balanced.
The Wellington Film Festival (sorry, New Zealand International Film Festival, Wellington Branch) is a huge undertaking for the committed cinema-goer. Every year we devour the programme for weeks in advance, scheduling annual leave and long “lunch breaks”, trying to work out what is essential and what isn’t. After 20 years of this, I’ve only just begun to realise that in the search for the essential many other pleasures have been passing me by. This year, before I even looked at the programme, I asked the Festival to choose a stack of DVDs for me, with the emphasis on the unheralded and the unexpected. Thus, of the 13 films I’ve been watching over the last three or so weeks, all but one of them were from the back half of the book (and probably would not have been on my personal shortlist) but all of them had something special to offer. So, is my advice for the Festival to not book in advance but instead choose films at random depending on your own availability and proximity to a venue? Maybe it is.
In addition to filling for Graeme Tuckett on Nine to Noon whenever he gets a better offer, I’ve been reviewing some books. Last Friday I had the great pleasure of talking to Lynn Freeman about the wonderful history of New Zealand cinema exhibition, “The Celluloid Circus” by Wayne Brittenden.
The RNZ downloads tend to disappear after a week so I’ve taken the liberty of archiving it here. Courtesy of Radio New Zealand:
Computer programmers have a concept called ‘garbage collection’ whereby useless and redundant items are automatically disposed of by ‘the system’. We film reviewers don’t have access to such technology, however, and are responsible for tidying our own rooms so, while all sensible cinephiles have their attention focused on the Festival, this column is playing catch-up with the commercial releases still playing in your local cineplex.
First up is Will Smith’s traditional 4th July epic, Hancock. All the major distributors know to steer well clear of Independence Day weekend as Smith totally ‘owns’ but that grip may loosen after his latest effort left many underwhelmed. But, what’s that you say? $453m worldwide gross? He turns out to be absolutely critic proof and I feel even more redundant than usual.
As a Smith admirer, I was terribly let down by Hancock. A promising first two acts in which the eponymous superhero-bum seeks redemption under the guidance of PR flack Jason Bateman turns to custard in a final third that seems to have been made up as they went along with poor Charlize Theron having to explain the nonsense plot in an embarrassing extended monologue over a hospital bed containing a dying Hancock. Total balderdash.
Although, not as awful as Meet Dave in which Eddie Murphy plays a spaceship that looks like Eddie Murphy, piloted by Eddie Murphy, walking stiffly around Manhattan looking for a lost orb that will steal all of Earth’s seawater and save the home planet. As bad as it sounds, if not worse.
Much more fun, though very messy, is Mamma Mia!, the star-studded tribute to ABBA and platforms that, in it’s musical theatre incarnation, has romped around the stages of the world for nearly ten years. On a Greek island, Meryl Streep is preparing for her daughter’s wedding not realising that said daugter (Amanda Seyfried) has invited all three of her possible fathers (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard). All the ABBA hits are performed with considerable karaoke-style energy from the mostly non-singers and Streep provides a lesson for the likes of Robert De Niro that when you take on a frothy commercial comedy you don’t have to leave your talent in your trailer.
Finally, let us praise director Jay Roach who it would appear (on the evidence of Mike Myers’ new “comedy” The Love Guru) was the real talent behind the Austin Powers movies. Somebody with the unlikely name of Marco Schnabel directs this one and Myers produces, co-writes and stars in this facile vanity project about a self-help spiritualist who tries to become the new Deepak Chopra by saving the marriage of a star ice hockey player (Romany Malco) so he can then lead his team to “Stanley’s Cup”. The most diverting thing about this miss and miss affair is wondering why the Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t called the Toronto Maple Leaves — a mystery on a par with how this putrid and insulting effort ever got off the ground in the first place.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 23 July, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: Hancock was at the Embassy. So was Mamma Mia! which was not done any favours by a damaged digital soundtrack on the print supplied by Paramount — very disappointing for a worldwide day & date release. Meet Dave was screened by the lovely people at the Empire in Island Bay. The Love Guru was only on at Readings in Wellington and they don’t supply media with comp tickets. Normally, I would work around that by seeing a film with Graeme Tuckett of the Dominion Post (or, hell, even borrowing his pass on occasion) but this time that wasn’t feasible with the Festival kicking off at the same time. So, I’m ashamed to say I downloaded it. Yes, I torrented a file that had originally been a preview DVD supplied by Paramount Pictures, with the watermark pixellated out. I would apologise except I’m waiting for Mike Myers to apologise to me first for making me watch it. And by the way, torrenting ain’t free — The Love Guru would have cost me a couple of bucks for the bandwidth and it wasn’t worth that.
Baltimore in the 60s must have been quite a place as it has inspired films like Barry Levinson’s Diner and Tin Men as well as the entire John Waters canon, from Mondo Trasho and Pink Flamingos to Hairspray and Cry-Baby in the 90s. Now Waters’ transgressive vision of outsider-dom has been absorbed in to the mainstream with the sanitised, PG, version of Hairspray, now transformed in to a Broadway musical and back on the screen. Full of stars having a gay old time, including the rarely seen Michelle Pfeiffer, Hairspray The Musical is a lot of fun and if the kids who enjoy it look up John Waters on the internet that would be a good thing too.
In Ratatouille, there’s a lovely moment when Remy, a French rat with a nose for fine food, discovers the beautiful possibilities of mixing flavours and a passion for fine cooking begins. The animation is beyond anything yet seen and the eye for the detail and respect for the kitchen is extraordinary — the chefs have scars on their hands and burns on their wrists — but the story doesn’t quite measure up to the technical achievement. Pretty entertaining, all the same.
Two films released this week go to prove that, even with millions of dollars of studio backing, making a film is very difficult indeed if you don’t really know why you’re doing it. The Invasion is a remake of two classic paranoid science-fiction films, both called The Invasion of The Body Snatchers, and stars Nicole Kidman as a psychiatrist trying to save her son who may be immune to the alien virus that is taking over the planet. While The Invasion may confirm everything you have always suspected about hotel catering, that may be all it is good for. A complete failure on almost every level.
Incredibly, The Invasion wasn’t even the worst film I saw that day. Lee Tamahori’s Next was even more listless than The Invasion and nobody involved looked even slightly engaged. A rogue nuke is missing somewhere in the continental United States and rogue FBI agent Julianne Moore manages to divert the entire investigation into finding Las Vegas magician Nicolas Cage because he has the ability to see two minutes into the future.
Meanwhile, the Russians and the French who have the nuke are also after Cage for no reason at all that I could work out. At one point an FBI agent watching Cage on a surveillance monitor exclaimed “Can you believe this shit?” and someone in the audience yelled “No!”. Actually, on reflection, that might have been me. Sorry.
Based on a best-selling memoir by successful academic and philosopher Raimond Gaita, Romulus, My Father is the story of a difficult childhood in 1960s rural Victoria. Both Gaita’s parents were Romanian immigrants, and due to the isolation, or perhaps some inherently Balkan moodiness, they both struggled with severe depression. Gaita’s mother (Run, Lola, Run’s Franka Potente) wasn’t really into being a mother until it was too late and his father (Eric Bana) never gets over the heartbreak of her abandonment.
The film is directed by actor Richard Roxburgh and his respect for his cast means we often linger a little longer on them than is necessary and the Victorian State by-law that says every film shot in the hinterland has to look like an oil painting is in full effect.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday, 12 September, 2007.
Notes on screening conditions: Hairspray viewed at a Sunday afternoon MoreFM radio preview at Readings (free haircare products — woohoo); Ratatouille screened commercially at a strangely not full session at the Empire in Island Bay on Friday night; The Invasion and Next were viewed at the earliest possible commercial screenings at Readings last Thursday beside Dom-Post reviewer Graeme Tuckett and Romulus, My Father was at the Penthouse on Monday afternoon and the print was in the poorest condition of any release print I have seen — looked like a gang of luminous green wasps in the middle of the screen.