I’d like to think of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler as a kind of grand metaphor for America, a bankrupt and exhausted old culture, coasting to the finish line on the fumes of former glories, unable or unwilling to reinvent itself despite every signal telling it to change. In one, of several, heartbreaking scenes Mickey Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” takes his estranged daughter to the abandoned and derelict amusements of Asbury Park where he hopes to rekindle memories of happier times but the moment of grace is short-lived. Of course, it may just be a film about a wrestler, I’ll give you that.
The Ram was a big star in the 80s when MTV and pro-wrestling collided, but now he lives in a trailer and wrestles in school halls. And wrestling, too, has changed. It’s still showbusiness but now it’s degrading and dehumanising, the public baying for even more blood and demanding ever greater sacrifices.
Showcasing the Taranaki landscape as well as the people, Show of Hands has an ambition as small as the town but, sadly, doesn’t bear up under too much scrutiny. A struggling car yard owner (StevenStephen Lovatt) runs a hands-on-the-car promotion as a last ditch attempt to save his business and a handily representative cross-section of New Zealand society turns out to have a go.
The three main contenders are Melanie Lynskey’s single-mum (who needs the car to ferry her wheelchair-bound daughter about); Matt Whelan’s young trustafarian and Craig Hall’s cold-fish businessman who may or may not need the dough to solve his business problems or may or may not just be an ultra-competitive egotistical jerk. The whole film suffers from a similar lack of clarity which makes suspending disbelief a struggle. The acting is fine however and Whelan in particular is excellent — one for the future there.
Cursed with a not-very-promising title, and a high concept premise (obnoxious dentist dies for seven minutes on an operating table and wakes up with the ability to see the ghosts of Manhattan), David Koepp’s Ghost Town turns out to be one of the mainstream pleasures of the year. I’m going to assume that every Hollywood rom-com with an English lead was written for Hugh Grant, but we can be grateful that he has all-but retired as it gives Ricky Gervais a meaty role which he grabs with both hands. Gervais may not have much range as an actor, but he does have depth and I found myself being unaccountably moved by a film that always delivers a little more than it says on the tin.
If the remarkable success of the 48 Hour Film Competition has proved anything in recent years it is that making films is now as much of a community experience as watching them and it’s that same hand-made, JFDI, aesthetic that Michel Gondry celebrates in the very special Be Kind Rewind.
While minding doddery Danny Glover’s ramshackle New Jersey video (and thrift) store, Mos Def discovers that all the precious VHS tapes have been erased by magnetic doofuss Jack Black. To save the business our heroes re-make the contents of the store using only a handycam and their ingenuity, eventually enlisting the whole town. I loved Be Kind Rewind and you’ll be honouring the spirit of the film if you see it at a theatre with a bunch of strangers.
Mirrors is yet another re-make of an Asian horror flick and there ain’t much water left in that particular well. Kiefer Sutherland plays a troubled NY ex-cop who takes a security guard job at an abandoned department store (Romanian and Hungarian studios plus a tiny bit of stock footage stand in for Manhattan). On his first night on the job the mirrors start to freak him out and two hours of excruciating exposition follow.
Also shot on a European sound stage, though a second unit did make it through JFK to shoot some scenery, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People is an amiable little romp starring Simon Pegg as a try-hard English journalist trying to make it as a celebrity writer on a top New York magazine. Pompous yet insecure, Pegg’s Sidney Young (loosely based on author Toby Young whose book was itself loosely based on his own short Manhattan career) cuts a slapstick swathe through high society. Pegg is ok (but he’s no Ricky Gervais, see above) but Megan Fox as movie star Sophie has the worst skin I’ve ever seen on a Hollywood leading actress.
Writer-Director Guy Ritchie’s dreadful faux-cockney purple prose has been drooled all over the interminable RocknRolla, a boysie bit of rough and tumble that’s the cinematic equivalent of someone grabbing you around the neck and rubbing their knuckles into your skull. The sloppy plot involves a Russian oligarch’s lucky painting, an old school East End gangster on the way out, a rock star faking his own death and a big black ticket tout with a taste for Jane Austen.
Ritchie does have an eye for young talent (Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels made Jason Statham a star): look out for Toby Kebbell (the junkie rock star Johnny Quid) and Tom Hardy (Handsome Bob), just don’t look out for them in this.
Finally, there’s not many films that wouldn’t be improved with the addition of the wonderful Jim Broadbent, and he really shines in And When Did You Last See Your Father?, a worthy brit-lit adaptation that also stars Colin Firth. Broadbent plays the father in question, a jovial egotist who doesn’t realise that his over-abundant joie-de-vivre is crushing the spirits of those around him. Firth is poet Blake Morrison, coming to terms with his father’s terminal illness with the help of plenty of flashbacks to his 60s childhood. Director Anand Tucker builds his case carefully until a splendidly moving finale draws a line under a very satisfying film.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 19 November, 2008.
Nature of conflict: I produced a couple of plays for Anthony McCarten back in the early 90s — “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and the revival of “Yellow Canary Mazurka”.
Notes on screening conditions: Ghost Town, How to lose Friends…, RocknRolla and Mirrors were all at Readings public sessions (all fine except How to Lose Friends… was slightly out of frame meaning some of the titles spilled on to the masking); Be Kind, Rewind was at the Paramount and the first half was 20% out of focus and the whole film was about 20% too quiet; Show of Hands was a late night watermarked DVD from Rialto Entertainment and And When Did You Last See Your Father? was at the Embassy during the Film Festival back in July.
Two hitmen (Gleeson and the excellent Colin Farrell) have been sent to the sleepy Belgian town of Bruges to lie low after a job has gone wrong. Once there, they are supposed to enjoy the many historic and cultural treats of the beautifully preserved walled medieval city while waiting for further instructions. This suits Gleeson (older, wiser, worldly) but Farrell, fractious after the terrible stuff-up, wants booze, birds, drugs and trouble. And even in Bruges he finds some of all of it.
One of the pitfalls you try and avoid in this gig is reviewing the film you wish you were watching instead of the one that is actually in front of you. It’s important to judge a work on it’s own terms, as well as it’s own merits, and avoid imposing your expectations but, with the best will in the world, there are times when you sit there wishing that the film you were watching was, y’know, better.
Exhibit A is The Bank Job, a lethargic caper-movie starring the reliable B‑movie action hero Jason Statham. It has all the attributes of an entertaining night out — chirpy knees-up cockney ruffians a la Lock Stock; painstaking bank heist preparations like Ocean’s 1x; an escape that goes terribly wrong like The Italian Job. The problem is all in the execution: mainly the editing which provides no impetus to the drama until the final third which by then is too late. It’s worth watching for the impeccable early-70s, East End art direction though. The flavour of the times are perfectly created.
Once I’d got over the fact that The Edge of Heaven wasn’t the long-awaited Wham! biopic I was expecting and instead an arthouse drama set in Turkey and Germany, I settled in to enjoy myself enormously. Writer-Director Fatih Akin specialises in stories about the intersection between Turkish immigrants living hard lives in the new Europe but he has surpassed himself this time. Less socio-political than his previous work (but with those threads still woven throughout), The Edge of Heaven tells two parallel stories (that intersect and occasionally frustratingly don’t) about the pain and heartbreak of being a parent and child. A richly detailed screenplay supports the clever structure and the film ends on a perfectly satisfying note. Recommended.
Charlie Bartlett is a smug, pseudo-indie, comedy about a gifted rich kid (Anton Yelchin) whose money making schemes get him kicked out of private school and into the mainstream where his attache case and blazer mark him out for unwanted attention. Charlie’s access to the family shrinks (and their prescribing power) allows him to become unofficial school therapist, handing out Ritalin like candy, providing these kids with the sensitive ear that they can’t find anywhere else and him with a role that transcends getting beaten up everyday.
Sadly, only the great Robert Downey Jr. (as the alcoholic principal) makes the lines sound, not only, like he’d actually thought of them himself but that they had occurred to him right then and there. Everyone else holds their characters at arms length and the whole film wears it’s irony rather too consciously on its sleeve.
A recent article in The Australian tries to define what ails current newspaper cinema reviewing and one of the examples is “boosting unworthy local material”. No danger of that with Apron Strings, the first feature by Toi Whakaari graduate and award-winning short film maker Sima Urale. A kitchen-sink drama set in the multi-cultural badlands of South Auckland that uses cooking as a metaphor as well as a plot mechanism. In a Curry House on a suburban street corner, Leela Patel makes her kormas and her sweets while long-lost sister Laila Rouass has become a top tv chef using those same recipes. Meanwhile, Jennifer Ludlam’s bigoted cake decorator a few doors down has to deal with her own disappointing children and a changing world she isn’t very keen on. (Perhaps too) lovingly and (too) carefully directed Apron Strings’ flaws are on the page rather than on the screen. Screenwriters Shuchi Kothari and Dianne Taylor squeeze so much in that the film collapses under the weight of all that coincidence and so many ‘points’. They also prove that it is very difficult to write a decent, three-dimensional, white racist character these days without falling back on cliché.
Another example of film reviewer irrelevance from The Australian is the concept of quote-whoring — writing specifically to get quoted in an ad. Well, here’s my one for this week: “I was woken by the sound of my own snoring”. Probably not the fault of Prague, the new Danish drama starring ubiquitous Mads Mikkelsen, as I did manage to stir before the half way point and quite enjoyed myself after that, but it takes a long time to get going. I’m sure there is a lot in there to reward a patient and attentive viewer but, apart from watching one of the great modern screen actors at work, I couldn’t find it.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 13 August, 2008.
Nature of conflict: Well, that gag about falling asleep ended up giving me plenty of grief after I repeated it on Nine to Noon. Prague is distributed in New Zealand by Arkles Entertainment, who I do some work for every now and then, and Managing Director (and all round paragon despite some dubious political allegiances) John Davies was not well-pleased. The threat to fire me faded somewhat when the 4 star Herald review appeared. Which just goes to show that, despite any appearances of a conflict of interest, the opinions offered here are always independent and free of influence.
Dedicated to Anderson’s hero, Robert Altman, Blood is a beast of a different colour to Old Men: a heavy-weight Western-style epic pouring oil on the myth of the American dream and then dropping a match on it. The amazing Daniel Day-Lewis plays independent prospector, oil man and misanthrope Daniel Plainview. Determined to separate simple people from the oil under their feet he uses his adopted child in order to resemble an honest family man while he plots the downfall of his enemies.
There Will Be Blood ruthlessly dissects the two competing powers of 20th Century American life: capitalism and religion, each as cynical and corrupt as the other. Paul Dano (the comically mute son in Little Miss Sunshine) is a revelation as charismatic pastor Eli Sunday, the only character strong enough to merit a battle of wills with Plainview – a battle to the finish.
Listless rom-com 27 Dresses comes to life for one amusing montage of weddings and dresses (about half way in) but otherwise this star-vehicle for Katherine Heigl (Knocked Up) seems under-powered. She’s joined in the film by James Marsden (Enchanted) (not normally a cause for rejoicing, and so it proves once again here) and Malin Akerman (The Heartbreak Kid) who isn’t nearly as funny as she thinks she is. Heigl plays a supposedly plain, self-effacing, young woman who organises the lives (and weddings) of all those around her while secretly pining for a wedding of her own with Boss Ed Burns.
Rogue Assassin is big and dumb and doesn’t even succeed on it’s own limited terms. Former member of the British Olympic Diving Team, Jason Statham (Crank) plays an inexplicably English-accented FBI agent in the Asian Crime Unit. He’s on the trail of an ex-CIA hitman named Rogue (Jet Li) who is engaged in a Yojimbo-like plot to destroy San Francisco’s Yakuza and Triad gangs. Fans of Jet Li’s trademark balletic martial arts will be disappointed as anything more than standing around looking stern seems to be beyond him now. The daft twist at the end will provide some much-needed amusement.
Danish provocateur director Lars von Trier recently announced his retirement from filmmaking due to depression. He hasn’t ceased involvement in film, though, as his company Zentropa is still producing some of the most unusual and challenging films around and Red Road is a perfect example, the first release in a new project called The Advance Party. Zentropa producers Lone Scherfig & Anders Thomas Jensen (Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself) created several characters and then gave those characters (and a set of rules about how they should be used) to three writer-directors in the hope that the three films together would prove greater than the sum of the parts.
The first film, Andrea Arnold’s Red Road, isn’t just an interesting experiment, it’s actually very good. Lonely Glasgow CCTV operator Jackie (Kate Dickie) is haunted by an unspecified tragedy from her past. When she sees an unexpected face on her monitor she, in spite of herself, is forced to confront him and her own grief. The Red Road council estate, that gives the film it’s name, makes Newtown Park Flats look like the Isle of Capri, and the whole thing has a Loach-ian grit that is happily well-balanced by some beautiful cinematography. The film itself plays out slowly, but not inevitably, and the surprise revelation at the end is less powerful but somehow more moving than you expect.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 20 February, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: There Will Be Blood screened at Rialto Wellington on Saturday afternoon. The image was incorrectly masked so that the vertical cyan soundtrack along the left of the screen was clearly visible throughout. The projectionist was alerted but he shrugged his shoulders and said there was nothing he could do about it. We have about six more weeks of Rialto Wellington and I volunteer to swing the first wrecking-ball.
This week’s Capital Times film review, annotated and illustrated: Jindabyne (Ray Lawrence); Crank (Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor); The Nativity Story (Catherine Hardwicke); Unaccompanied Minors (Paul Feig) and Deck The Halls (John Whitesell). Notes on screening conditions and other impressions will arrive in a other post. It’s late.