Danny Boyle is one of my favourite directors. From Shallow Grave in 1994 to 127 Hours in 2010, his work has stimulated and inspired me. I re-watched Trainspotting the other day and it still made everything else I saw that week seem old-fashioned. Everything, that is, except Trance which just happens to be Boyle’s new film, a return to cinemas after directing the biggest theatre show of all time – the Olympic Games opening ceremony which was seen by an audience of – ooh – about 900 million people.
Trance returns Boyle to his $20m budget comfort zone and his new lightweight digital filmmaking style. It also reunites him with screenwriter John Hodge (Trainspotting) so it should be all systems go, yes?
Not quite. In Trance, James McAvoy plays an art expert with a problem. Instead of helping a gang of thugs steal a very expensive painting from his auction house he actually tries to steal it himself, getting a whack on the head for his trouble. Now he can’t remember where he left the painting and the gang are trying everything from fingernail-pulling to hypnotherapy to help him remember where it is.
I believe that it should be illegal to even mention the word Christmas in any month other than December. Yup, illegal. No one should be allowed to even breathe it, let alone have parades, display mince pies in supermarkets or throw staff parties. If, as a once-great nation, we can restrict firework sales to three days before Guy Fawkes I’m sure we can manage to pull our collective yuletide-obsessed heads in for a few weeks and focus all that attention on only one month a year.
At least that’s what I thought until last Friday. That was when I saw the new picture from England’s Aardman Animation, Arthur Christmas. I was prepared, based on my aforementioned bah-humbuggery – and some unprepossessing trailers – to be scornful and yet I was won over. Won over to the extent that I might as well be wrapped in tinsel with a fairy on top. Arthur Christmas made me believe in Christmas a week before I was ready.
This film is digital 3D rather than the stop-motion clay models that made Aardman famous, but the invention, wit, pace, structure and commitment to theme are all securely in place, brought to life by an awesome UK voice cast (Jim Broadbent and Bill Nighy both do outstanding work) and some brilliantly clever visuals.
We’re at that time of year when the big studios role out blockbuster after blockbuster so that Americans looking to escape the stifling heat will choose to find comfort in cinema air-conditioning and we in New Zealand hope that the cinemas are warmer than our lounge rooms.
Apart from the Spielberg/Abrams collaboration Super 8 (next week, folks) all of the biggies this season are either sequels or comic book adaptations, demonstrating that despite all indications the bottom of the barrel hasn’t quite been scraped yet.
After three X‑Men films and a horrendous Wolverine spin-off Marvel/Fox have gone back to the beginning in the now traditional franchise re-boot strategy perfected by Batman and stuffed up completely by Bryan Singer with Superman Returns.
It’s 1962 and the Cold War is heating up. In Oxford a smarmy super-intelligent booze-hound (James McAvoy) is scoring with girls thanks to his ability to read minds. The CIA asks him for some help unravelling the mystery of some unexplained phenomena in Las Vegas and is perturbed to discover they get his freaky mind control powers as well as his analysis – and his “sister” Raven (Jennifer Lawrence from Winter’s Bone) who has the ability to change shape at will.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall was one of the surprise pleasures of 2008. An Apatow comedy that was relatively modest about it’s ambitions it featured a break-out performance from English comedian Russell Brand, playing a version of his own louche stage persona.
As it so often goes with surprise hits, a spinoff was rushed into production and we now get to see whether Mr Brand’s brand of humour can carry an entire film. Get Him to the Greek sees Brand’s English rock star Aldous Snow on the comeback trail after a failed seven year attempt at sobriety. Unlikely LA A&R man Jonah Hill (Knocked Up, Funny People) sells his record label boss, Sean “P Diddy” Combs, on a 10th anniversary concert featuring Snow and his band Infant Sorrow at the Greek Theatre of the title.
From the first bars of John Williams’ famous fanfare, played on a 1000 kazoos, you know The Clone Wars is going to be a cheap and cheerful, Saturday morning cartoon level, rip-off of the Star Wars universe and so it proves. Without participation of any of the original stars (except for game old Chris Lee as Dooku) and George Lucas’ involvement limited to insisting that one character has the voice of Truman Capote, a minor episode gets spun out well beyond it’s ability to engage and entertain but it is quite amusing to be reminded that all the clones look like Tem Morrison. The tone is basically “All Jar-Jar, all the time” but even your average eight year old might wonder why it has to be so repetitive.
While it shouldn’t be any great surprise to be intellectually insulted by The Clone Wars, I was amazed to actually be personally insulted by the creators of comic-book action flick Wanted, during the summing-up voice-over at the end. Gentlemen, I am far from pathetic and the opposite of ordinary and if your idea of a valid personal philosophy is to murder strangers because a magic loom told you to, then I’m pretty happy here on my side of that fence. Director Timur Bekmambetov proved with Night Watch and Day Watch that he has a thrilling personal style but not much in the way of storytelling ability which he confirms with his first Hollywood studio production. Mr Tumnus, James McAvoy, plays nerdy accounts clerk Wesley who finds out he is the son and heir of the world’s best assassin. Aided by Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman he learns to shoot round corners and discover an objectivist sense of purpose that puts his own personal freedom and destiny above the lives of (for example) hundreds of innocent people on a train. Vile.
Harry Houdini was one of the 20th century’s legendary entertainers and in Death Defying ActsGuy Pearce renders him completely without charisma which is a remarkable achievement. The first great sceptic, Houdini offers $10,000 to anyone who can tell him his beloved mother’s final words. Stage mind-reader Catherine Zeta Jones sees a way out of poverty but finds herself falling in love instead. The lack of electricity (real or imagined) between the two leads hampers things somewhat but the camera loves Saoirse Ronan (Atonement and the forthcoming Lovely Bones) so it isn’t a complete waste of time.
While China is front and centre of world attention at the moment, the arrival in cinemas of Yung Chang’s excellent documentary Up the Yangtze couldn’t be better timed. Taking us on a luxury cruise up a Yangtze river being slowly transformed by the epic (Mao-inspired) Three Gorges Dam project, the film manages to get more of China into it’s cleverly layered 90 minutes than seems possible. Teenage Yu dreams of going to University and becoming an engineer but her parents are illiterate and dirt poor and have missed out on the compensation that would move them from their shack beside the river. So, against her will, she is sent to work on the cruise ship where she is given the English name Candy and instructed in the ways of modern domestic service. Meanwhile, her parents struggle to find a new place to live and the river inexorably rises.
When discussing global warming and carbon emissions, we are often told that China opens a new coal powered power station every week which is evidently a bad thing. But, ironically, when they build a renewable hydro-electric scheme the West gets pretty snooty about that too. The pressures on China from all directions are keenly felt in this film, which will tell you more about that part of the world than three weeks of Olympic Games.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 20 August, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: Star Wars: The Clone Wars was viewed at one of those excruciating radio station previews on Wednesday, 13 August (Readings). Wanted and Death Defying Acts were at Empire public screenings and Up the Yangtze was a preview screener DVD. I wish I had seen it at the Festival, though. I’m sure it would have looked very fine at the Embassy.
I fully intended to bring some intellectual acuity back to film commentary this week; maybe toss around terms like mise en scène and cognitive dissonance; maybe name drop Bresson and his thematic austerity and formal rigour. Then I saw little Kiwi battler, The Devil Dared Me To, a hand-made low-brow entertainment from the vodka and Becks-fuelled imaginations of Back of the Y’s Chris Stapp and Matt Heath, and I realised that high-falutin’ cinema theory was destined for the back burner for another week.
Stapp plays wannabe stunt hero Randy Campbell and Heath is his malevolent mentor Dick Johansonson. The Timaru Hellriders are about to collapse under the weight of invidious OSH attention and Dick’s lost nerve. Oily promoter Sheldon Snake (Dominic Bowden) bails them out so they can take on the North Island and get Campbell closer to his dream of being the first man to jump Cook Strait in a rocket car. Wildly uneven but often very, very, funny The Devil Dared Me To contains possibly the worst acting (and worst spelling) of any recent New Zealand film.
It’s entirely appropriate that The Devil has come out while we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of Roger Donaldson’s Sleeping Dogs; another back yard, oily rag feature with a similar larrikin approach towards the production process.
2007 has been a great year for good films but a poor year for great films; very little of what I’ve seen in 2007 belongs in the very top echelon. The most serious contender so far is Atonement, adapted from Ian McEwan’s novel about a lie told in innocence that has far reaching and terrible consequences.
In a blissfully beautiful British country house in the summer of 1935, precocious 13-year-old Briony Tallis (luminous Saoirse Ronan) is jealous of the attention her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) is getting from handsome Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) and impulsively accuses him of a terrible crime. The accusation tears the young lovers apart and leaves Briony consumed by a grievous guilt that she takes a lifetime to come to terms with. Virtually faultless.
I really wanted to give The Brave One the benefit of the doubt until its absurdity and consistently poor narrative choices overcame my resistance and I simply had to hate it. Jodie Foster plays mild-mannered Erica Bain, a radio producer in New York, engaged to handsome doctor Naveen Andrews from Lost. Walking the dog late one night the couple are brutally attacked by thugs leaving her badly beaten and the boyfriend dead. Overcome by fear and grief she buys a gun for protection but finds herself taking on a much more malevolent role. Terrence Howard is the good cop on her trail.
There’s nothing so objectionable on offer in Conversations With My Gardener, a French charmer starring the ubiquitous Daniel Auteuil as an artist returning to his family home in the country while his divorce goes through. He employs wily local Jean-Pierre Darroussin to knock him up a vegetable garden and, over the summer, the two embark on a friendship that involves (as is the way of things in French films) the simple local giving life lessons to the sophisticated townie.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 17 October, 2007.