There’s something very odd about the opening scenes in Shutter Island and it takes the entire film for you to put your finger on it. Shots don’t match between cuts, there’s a stilted quality to the dialogue (too much exposition for a Martin Scorsese movie) and the pacing is off. For a while I found myself wondering whether Marty had lost the immense influence of his great editor Thelma Schoonmaker, but there she is, still in the credits, as she has been for Scorsese since Raging Bull.
Several years ago, Scorsese played a practical joke on me (personally, it felt like at the time) when an entire reel of The Aviator was treated to look like faded 1930s Technicolor – I went to the Embassy counter to complain and felt very sheepish to be told by Oscar, the projectionist, that the director meant it that way. So, this time around I decided to trust the maestro and roll with the strangeness and was rewarded with one of the best (and cleverest) psychological thrillers in many a year.
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.
Many years ago English comedian Ben Elton cracked a joke about Bob Dylan: “For all you young people in the audience he was the one who couldn’t sing on the end of the We Are The World video.” Nowadays we have to explain to young people what We Are The World was and Dylan has travelled even further away from relevance. So why is I’m Not There. (the full stop is part of the title) such essential viewing if Dylan seems so irrelevant?
Because unlike everyother 20th Century icon Dylan never cared what you think – he just followed his instincts and his interests and the film is an endlessly fascinating portrait of that battle to avoid becoming what his audience and his industry wanted him to become. Portrayed by six different actors including Cate Blanchett and Heath Ledger, Dylan’s many personas still keep you at arms length. I think the key to Dylan is that he is less complicated (and at the same time more complex) than the world would have you believe and he fully deserves a work of art as fine as this one in his name.
I should also point out that I was lucky enough to see I’m not There. in that most musical of locations, the Paramount and it sounded superb. A keeper.
Robert Downey Jr. is one of those movie brats who seems to have been born in front of a camera (check out his almost perfect performance as Chaplin for Richard Attenborough in 1992). He hasn’t been getting the lead roles he deserves (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was the last one) but Iron Man is surely going to change that. Downey Jr.‘s effortless screen charisma is the foundation of a highly entertaining action movie that is only let down by a not-quite-big-enough set-piece at the end. Billionaire and playboy arms manufacturer Tony Stark has his eyes opened to the evils his products enable when he is kidnapped in Afghanistan. After escaping, he decides to use his technology for good (while still having as much fun as possible). A good supporting cast (including Jeff Bridges looking like Daddy Warbucks) keeps things moving.
The funniest thing about Patrick Dempsey rom-com Made of Honour is that it was made by a company called Original Film. As if! Dempsey plays Tom, super-rich inventor of the coffee collar and serial-bedder of beautiful women. Too late he realises that he is actually in love with his best friend Hannah (Michelle Monaghan, this year’s Sandra Bullock) just as she is about to get married to Trainspotting’s Kevin McKidd in a Scottish castle. Pretty much all the characters are deeply shallow and pretty unlikeable which I’m sure wasn’t the intention and, most annoying of all, director Paul Weiland gives himself the auteur credit of “A Film By”. In your dreams, pal.
Much more successful, and not coincidentally populated with much nicer people, is Dan in Real Life starring Steve Carell as author of a popular newspaper parenting tips column who has much more difficulty parenting his actual children (alone, due to that all-too-common conceit of a widow-hood). So far, so un-promising, but Dan in Real Life really wins you over with smart writing and lovely, understated performances from a terrific ensemble. Lonely Dan is taking his brood of daughters to a multi-generational family get together in rugged Rhode Island. He meets beautiful and alluring Juliette Binoche and they fall in love, just before finding out that she is his brother’s new girlfriend. Testing times around the dinner table ensue, mostly comic but never far away from deeply heartfelt. Frankly, more films should be like this.
How About You is one of those films where, I confess, my taste and the taste of mainstream New Zealanders diverges somewhat. Ellie, played by Hayley Atwell (star of the unnecessarily forthcoming new version of Brideshead Revisited), is forced by circumstance to help her sister care for a group of unruly clients (a dream cast including Vanessa Redgrave, Brenda Fricker and Joss Ackland) in an Irish elderly residential home so beautiful it makes Malvina Major look like Alcatraz. Left alone with them at Christmas, she manages to transform all of them into saintly paragons of maturity via alcohol and non-prescribed drugs. I barely tolerated this but if you are over 70 you might get a kick out of it – the people behind me who talked all the way through certainly did.
The Human Rights Film Festival kicks off it’s 2008 season at the Paramount on Thursday evening. While most of these films don’t really qualify as cinema per se, this is still an important opportunity to see the world as it is absolutely not portrayed through the commercial media. Highlights for me include Occupation 101, a crystal-clear examination of the reality of life in occupied Palestine, and Now The People Have Awoken, another perspective on Chavez’s Venezuela which will be of particular interest if you have seen Pilger’s War on Democracy. There are seven shorter items on the programme too: I’m looking forward to seeing Bowling for Zimbabwe about a young boy who needs a cricketing scholarship in order to escape the man-made atrocity of Mugabe’s grinding poverty.
Notes on screening conditions: I already mentioned how good I’m Not There. sounded at the Paramount during the Showcase. I don’t know whether it is the shape of the room or the PA speakers behind the screen but music cinema has always sounded sensational in there. Iron Man was, like Transformers last year, at a busy public screening at the Embassy which looked and sounded great. Standing ovation from a few fanboys, too. Made of Honour looked perfectly acceptable at the Empire. I am not allowed to tell you where I saw Dan in Real Life as they made me sign an NDA before they would let me in there. No shit! But it was amazing. The print had seen better days but had been given a spruce up by our hosts. How About You was ruined by it being a not very good film but the incessant talking by the old biddies behind me and the annoying hair in the gate finished me off. Penthouse.
And, at risk of sounding like a total film-wanker I’m going to allocate what strengths The Spiderwick Chronicles has to the presence of the great John Sayles as co-writer. Sayles’ independent work includes classics like The Brother From Another Planet and Passion Fish but makes a living doing (mostly uncredited) punch-up jobs on big budget screenplays. I was growing increasingly frustrated with the plodding story-telling, and the over-reliance on the well-designed digi-creatures, before a great moment at the climax restored my faith that a proper screenwriter was on board after all.
Three children have to leave New York when their parents split up and live in the big, old, abandoned house in the country that their crazy Aunt lived in. Freddie Highmore, so ubiquitous in these sorts of films that he even does double-duty in this one, plays bad-boy Jared who discovers an old book in the attic, reads the note warning him not to open it, ignores it, and unleashes a world of goblins, fairies and ogres that are invisible to normal people. Nothing new to report there, then, but every generation seems to need a new version just for them.
I’ve been a John Pilger-sceptic for a while, not helped by his bombastic and unpleasant behaviour to local interviewers, but his first independent documentary for cinema, The War on Democracy, eventually won me over. It makes an excellent companion to Helen Smyth’s Cuba-doc ¿La Verdad? as it provides the kind of encyclopaedic background to the United States’ nefarious engagement with Latin America that she could only hint at. Starting in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, Pilger uses the failed coup in 2002 as a springboard to show how, for more than 50 years, the US has installed or deposed governments across the continent in order to further its own political and financial aims. It’s not great cinema – that’s not Pilger’s bag – but it is essential viewing.
Horton Hears a Who! may well feature the most profound moment in cinema this year. As the tiny citizens of Who-ville (a bustling and happy community living on a tiny speck, itself sitting on a dandelion being blown around by fate) realise that in order to be saved they first must be heard, they bang drums, blow trumpets and chant “We are here!” Like the forgotten poor in Pilger’s Caracas barrio or the displaced in Darfur, the power to proclaim our existence in the face of ignorant or malevolent authority isn’t just a right, it’s an obligation, and I’m certain that the good Dr. Seuss wouldn’t have missed the connection.
Big-hearted elephant Horton (Jim Carrey) rescues the speck when his enormous ears pick up the tiny voice of the Who-ville Mayor (Steve Carell) and he realises that he has a mission. In the face of community standards ruthlessly enforced by Carol Burnett’s Kangaroo, Horton is hounded out of the jungle but he never gives up. So, not only does Horton not suck like all recent Seuss adaptations, it bristles with energy, humour and panache. Choice!
Like the forthcoming Dylan portrait I’m Not There, Across the Universe feels like the Baby Boomers’ last attempt to claim the 60s as, you know, important, meaningful, unique. The music of The Beatles tells the story of star-crossed lovers Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) and Jude (Jim Sturgess) as they try and keep a relationship alive across that tumultuous decade. I emotionally disengaged the moment I realised that Sturgess sounded like Robbie Williams instead of John Lennon but was never less than entertained. A trip, man.
How She Move is a Canadian version of films like Step Up 2 The Streets, Stomp The Yard and countless others. Featuring all the usual elements of the genre: underground urban dance crews; a kid has to get out of the ghetto via a scholarship; she needs the prize money; parents just don’t understand, etc. It’s as if the producers couldn’t decide which banal clichés to leave out and gave up, stuffing the finished film to breaking point. I’ve grown to really dislike the dancing in these films, too.
Finally, a late word on behalf of Rambo (which missed the cut during the last few weeks). By making his villains Burmese human-rights violators and his victims innocent aid workers, director Sylvester Stallone stacks the deck effectively and, despite looking completely bizarre, he infuses his taciturn killing-machine with the occasional moist-eyed moment of humanity amid the flying limbs. A respectable end to what had become a cartoon franchise.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 16 April, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: Semi-Pro was at a sparsely attended public matinée at Readings. The Spiderwick Chronicles was at the Empire in Island Bay and the review was in no way influenced by the lovely free coffee they made me just as the trailers were playing. The War on Democracy was a DVD screener provided by Hopscotch (via GT) and the film is currently only playing at the Lighthouse in Petone. Horton Hears a Who! was also screened at the Empire where I was the only unattended adult present. Across the Universe was screened at the Paramount’sWorld Cinema Showcase. How She Move was an exceedingly sparsely attended matinée at Readings and Rambo was another Readings week day matinée, a couple of weeks ago.