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.
It’s clear that there are two kinds of people in the world. There are the people who get Harry Potter (not just get but devour, savour, relish) and then there’s, you know, me.
Over the last six years I have doggedly tried to review the HP franchise as if it was cinema, as if there might be viewers tempted along who hadn’t been exposed to the books and who might reasonably be expecting to watch a film that stands on its own two feet.
Well, to coin a phrase, “it all ends” now. I give up. With Harry Potter, you can’t divorce your response from your expectations. If you loved the books it would appear that you love the films and the less attention the filmmakers pay to unbelievers like me the better you like it.
Genius filmmaker Mike Leigh has been on a bit of an up and down streak in recent years. 2002’s All or Nothing was wonderful, Vera Drake (2004) I found frustratingly unwatchable and, most recently, Happy-Go-Lucky seemed too thin — beneath his significant talents — and yet, despite not liking it very much, I find myself thinking about Happy-Go-Lucky quite often. And that’s Leigh’s skill — he gets under your skin even when you resist.
Another Year is his latest film and it’s terribly good. It’s Secrets and Lies good, that good, despite having no plot to speak of. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen (Leigh regulars) play Tom and Gerri, a happily married couple who seem to be surrounded by people who simply aren’t as good at coping with life — Lesley Manville’s Mary, a highly strung, alcoholic, work colleague of Sheen’s who turns up to embarrass herself in their kitchen periodically; Tom’s old university buddy Ken played by Peter Wight (overweight, depressed, lonely, also alcoholic); Tom’s taciturn widower brother Ronnie (David Bradley). They all drift into and out of Tom and Gerri’s welcoming suburban kitchen while tea is made and drunk and banalities are spoken.
What is there left to say about Harry Potter films? It seems like only yesterday that I wrote of The Order of the Phoenix: “this Harry Potter is not a hugely enjoyable experience. The young actors, despite lots of practice by now, haven’t got any better (poor Rupert Grint as Harry gets found out every time they point the camera at him). Daniel Radcliffe as Harry doesn’t seem to be able to carry the weight of the emotion or the action and Harry himself still seems like a bit of a wimp.” And nothing much has changed this time around.
In the latest film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry is under pressure from headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon)to find out the truth about returning potions professor Slughorne (Jim Broadbent) who knows the secret of Dark Lord Valdemort’s whereabouts. But Dumbledore’s motivations are murky and the loyalty of Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) is called in to question. There is also a humourless and tedious diversion into the romantic lives of our heroes that does nothing but confirm the absence of acting talent on offer.
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.