I really enjoyed Alexander Payne’s The Descendants – at least while I was watching it. Some films will do that to you, though. They push all sorts of groovy buttons while you are in the room but they diminish as you re-examine them. Connections that you thought were there turn out to be illusory, a series of satisfying emotional moments don’t cohere into something complete and you realise that you were enjoying it so much you wished it into something profound.
I blame Clooney. He’s such a watchable presence, always combining that Cary Grant movie star-ness with an underlying emotional frailty. His characters carry that square-jawed aspirational male solidity but rarely do they actually know what is going on or what to do. He specialises in people who are making it up as they go along and that has tremendous appeal – if George Clooney doesn’t know what he’s doing then none of us do.
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 karaōke-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.
Two films this week made by screen legends whose careers have settled in to something a little less than their glorious past. Sidney Lumet was making television drama when it was broadcast live from the studio in the 40s and 50s, and made the first (and best) version of courtroom drama 12 Angry Men in 1957. In the 70s he made some of the best of those gritty New York stories that defined the decade (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network) but his most recent work has passed under the New Zealand radar, his last twofeatures not even getting a local release. To be honest I thought he was dead and figured that I must have missed his name pass by in one of those Academy Award salutes to the fallen.
Which makes Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead a lovely surprise: a gritty, R‑rated, heist-gone-wrong picture, set in those New York mean streets we seem to know so well (but also the verdant Westchester suburbs). Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke play two down-on-their luck brothers, young men whose character flaws render them inadequate to cope with the various pressures of modern living. Hoffman’s Andy is an ambitious real estate accountant (not a deal-maker but a wannabe player) with a drug habit and an embezzlement problem. Hawke’s Hank is divorced and struggling to pay the prep school fees and child support to his tough bitch ex-wife (Amy Ryan from Gone Baby Gone).
When Andy suggests that the robbery of a small suburban shopping mall jewellery store would be the answer to all their problems we are about to get one of the great set-ups for a thriller in modern memory and they are about to get in to a whole heap of trouble. Effortlessly switching perspectives and time-frames, Lumet proves that he hasn’t lost that ability to reveal human frailty by piling on the pressure. Totally recommended.
Brendan Gleason Gleeson (stretching his legs) plays self-made property developer Liam O’Leary who, under pressure from the banks and corrupt politicians, starts seeing visions of a man who looks like himself, following him around. It turns out this fellow is his doppelgänger, bent on destroying the life Liam has built for himself and taking anything valuable to be found in the rubble. The “evil twin” story is one of the oldest in literature and it makes for a pretty lumpy metaphor here. Despite all the success and riches brought by the Irish Miracle, as Father Andy who runs the homeless shelter (Ciarán Hinds) says, “for every success, someone else has to lose”. Boorman’s direction is workmanlike but he retains that annoying habit of re-recording all the dialogue later using ADR, making it sometimes seem like you are watching a poorly-dubbed foreign film.
Kung Fu Panda is a boisterous and entertaining animated flick that resembles an eight-year-old’s bedroom while they are throwing all their toys around. The story makes no attempt at originality, hoping that the voice genius of Jack Black and the thrilling broad-brush animation will provide enough energy to carry you through (and for the most part it does). Black plays Po, a panda with dreams of kung fu glory. When Tai Lung (Ian McShane), the evil snow leopard, escapes from detention bent on revenge the search goes out for a new Dragon Warrior, for only a Dragon Warrior can defend the valley from such a menace. And so on and so forth.
Finally, in the annals of pointlessness a new chapter must be written and that chapter will be titled Speed Racer. I fell asleep during The Matrix at the Embassy in 1999 so The Wachowski Brothers have never managed to work their magic on me but even so, I have rarely felt so detached from a big screen movie as I did watching this adaptation of a (supposed) cult Japanese kids cartoon. In fact, I found myself pondering the total carbon footprint of the experience if you add the appalling cost of the film to my sitting in an empty, climate-controlled, theatre on a Monday morning to watch it.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 2 July, 2008. Sorry for the delay in posting but somehow I managed to get pretty busy this week.
No review to post this week (only Hancock released and Will Smith will do nicely without any help or hindrance from me) and next week I’ll be putting up my mammoth Wellington Film Festival preview (cross-posted to Wellingtonista).