Readers of last week’s column will know that I am currently overseas on a quest, a mission – a pursuit if you prefer – hoping to discover a new kind of cinema. After a week at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado I am now in New York and have got a clearer idea of what that vision should look like.
I think I’ll name this new cinema goodcinema and it’s main characteristic will be the absence of films like Hit and Run and The Watch, two of this week’s new releases. Is it possible to redefine rubbish like this out of existence?
The first is a Dax Shepard vanity project about a man choosing to give up his place in a dull witness protection programme so that his girlfriend (Kristen Bell) can get a job in the big city. In the space of a single day his previous identity as a top getaway driver is revealed to her and his new identity as a dreary small-town non-entity is revealed to the dimwitted but single-minded hoods who he ratted out.
We review Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hugh Dancy in Hysteria and German WWII period piece movie Wunderkinder. Plus Dan reports on his first Telluride Film Festival, four days of movies in the mountains of Colorado.
Anyone wondering whether the great Pedro Almodóvar had lost some of his edge at the ripe old age of 62 should immediately check out his new film The Skin I Live In which is as deranged as anything else he has produced in more than thirty years of feature film making. Puss In Boots himself, Antonio Banderas, plays a successful plastic surgeon with a dark secret. Many of his greatest medical achievements are a result of the experiments he conducts on a beautiful woman (Elena Anaya) held captive in his mansion.
Who is she? Why is she there? These questions are answered in the film but have to be skirted around here for even the tiniest hint at spoilers will wreck some of the twistiest (in all senses of the word except perhaps confectionary) surprises you will experience all year. It’s enough to say that if this film had been made in the 1950s then Banderas’ character would have been played by Vincent Price (think House of Wax) and that everyone involved would have been run out of town by the authorities.
We’re born alone and we die alone and in between nothing goes according to plan and the people around us are mostly unreliable and occasionally malevolent. Meanwhile, God either doesn’t exist or is indifferent to our suffering. Either way, A Serious Man, the new film by the prodigiously gifted Coen Brothers, is a very serious film. It is also a very funny one.
In a mid-west University town in the late 60s, Physics Professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) has a happy family, a great career and a beautiful house in a nice neighbourhood. Actually, he has none of those things. His wife (Sari Lennick) has fallen for smooth-talking Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) and needs a Get (a formal Jewish divorce), his daughter wants a nose job, his son is preparing for his bar mitzvah by smoking dope and listening to rock music and his unsuccessful brother (the great Richard Kind) is sleeping on the couch and draining his cyst in the bathroom. At the same time, the tenure committee at the University is receiving anonymous complaints and his white-bread, red-neck neighbours are mowing their lawns in a particularly threatening way.
You’ll often find me railing against the Hollywood machine in these pages – the lifeless and cynical, the focus-grouped and beta-tested, the bandwagon jumping and the shark jumping – so it makes a pleasant change to loudly praise a film whose strengths are a pure expression of old-fashioned Hollywood virtues.
Duplicity is a star-driven caper movie, featuring terrific easy-going performances by Julia Roberts and Clive Owen – playing two former spies now in the corporate security business. They team up to play their two clients off against each other for a secret formula that will change the world, and discover that big business plays for keeps.
The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Day in 1979. They remained in the country, brutally suppressing the local resistance, until they were forced to leave in 1989: almost ten years of occupation that destroyed one country and ruined another. One side of the story was told in the recent film The Kite Runner: in it we saw a vibrant and cosmopolitan culture bombed back to the stone age by the Soviets and their equally one-eyed Taliban replacements.
For peaceniks like myself, the Soviet aggression was an inconvenient fact, difficult to acknowledge during our efforts to prevent nuclear annihilation at the hands of war-mongerers like Ronald Reagan. While we were marching for peace and disarmament, playboy Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) was secretly funding the Mujahideen insurgents to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, providing them with the weapons that would bring down the Russians.
With the help of a renegade CIA-man (wonderful Philip Seymour Hoffman), a Texan socialite (Julia Roberts), an Israeli spy (Ken Stott) and President Zia, dictator of Pakistan (Om Puri), Wilson persuaded, cajoled, threatened and coerced Congress to pay for all this – without them even knowing what it was for. Aaron Sorkin’s script is razor-sharp, often very funny, and does a great job of not spelling out all the lessons we should be learning. Charlie Wilson’s War may have brought about the end of the Cold War but it also opened up Afghanistan to the brutal fundamentalism of the Taliban, increased the influence of the Saudis in the region and indirectly led to the Iraqi poo-fight we are in now. As Wilson says, it’s all about the endgame.
How strange it is that two of my favourite films of the past twelve months should be about coming-to-terms with an unwanted pregnancy. Knocked Up, last year, was a broad comedy with a good heart and this year Jason Reitman’s Juno is even better: full of unexpected subtlety and nuance from a great cast working with a tremendous script from gifted newcomer Diablo Cody.
Like last year’s Hard Candy, Ellen Page plays a precocious teenager only this time she is not a homicidal revenge maniac. At only 16, she finds herself pregnant to the unlikely Paulie Bleeker (Superbad’s Michael Cera) and takes it upon herself to find appropriate parents for the little sea monkey growing inside her. The rich couple who sign on (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) look perfect, but looks can be deceiving. Juno is an easy film to love and I can see people going back to it again and again.
If a film has a good heart you can forgive its flaws, but what to do when it has no heart at all? Cloverfield is a modern-day retelling of a classic Hollywood monster movie and once again New York gets a terrible pounding. A group of self-absorbed yuppies are caught in the carnage and try to escape but manage to film the entire thing on their camcorder. Yeah right. Technically admirable, Cloverfield cleverly maintains the home video conceit but shaky-cam motion sickness got to me in the end.
Meet the Spartans is all flaw and no redeeming feature: another miss and miss spoof of last year’s hits. Soft targets include “Ugly Betty”, “American Idol”, Paris Hilton (yawn) and 300. The Spartans were gay, apparently. And not in a good way.
The Jane Austen Book Club is a well-intentioned adaptation of the popular novel about a group of women (and one dude) who meet once a month to talk about their favourite author. Writer and director Robin Swicord has assembled a fine ensemble cast including Maria Bello, Kathy Baker, Amy Brenneman and Jimmy Smits but too often they are representatives of people rather than people themselves and the film is un-persusasive. Actually, that’s not entirely true: the tentative relationship between Bello’s independent hound breeder and Hugh Dancy’s shy IT guru works nicely (for the most part).
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 30 January, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: Charlie Wilson’s War screened at a Reading Cinemas print check, 9am last Tuesday morning (thanks, Hadyn), sitting in the comfy Gold Lounge chairs; Juno screened on Sunday afternoon in Penthouse 1 (the original). It’s nice to see the Penthouse finally replacing the seats in Cinema 1 but perhaps they could think about replacing the sound system with something that wasn’t salvaged from a transistor radio. Meet the Spartans was seen at a busy Saturday matinée at Readings where the brain-dead teenagers around me hooted at every stupid, lame, joke. Cloverfield was in Readings digital cinema (Cinema 5) and looked sensational. Digital really is the future and it can’t come soon enough. I shudder to think how ill I might have felt if I’d seen Cloverfield from a wobbly, scratchy print. The Jane Austen Book Club was the second part of a Penthouse double-feature on Sunday, this time in Cinema 3 (the new one) which is splendid.