As I sit here typing, I can hear the sounds of a Wellington summer all around me — the rain pouring on to the deck outside and the wind howling through the trees. Is this why local film distributors release so much product over the Christmas/New Year period? Perhaps it’s just climate and nothing to do with the Oscars at all? Anyhow, here’s a quick summary of what’s been dished out at local cinemas in descending order of greatness.
First up, Ang Lee’s glowing 3D adaptation of Yann Martell’s Life of Pi, storming the local box offices and deservedly so. Ravishing to look at — and making profound rather than novelty use of the extra depth available — Lee’s film manages to distil the essence of the book’s message even if the ambiguous ending proves less satisfying cinematically than literarily. Dreamy. I was particularly taken by the conscious recreation of the book’s original cover in one scene, even to the extent of changing the film’s aspect ratio for that single shot.
Firstly I want to apologise that there is no review of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life in this week’s column. I saw it during the Festival and like most audiences was perturbed, baffled, challenged and ultimately awed but I needed a second screening to make sense of it. Arguably less sense rather than more sense was what I would be aiming for.
The film opened commercially this weekend at a couple of locations but neither of them offered the sort of grandeur (i.e. screen size) and quality (i.e. DCP 2k digital transfer of the kind I am starting to love) so I thought I would hold off until it reaches a few more screens. I know — I sound like a pompous ass but that’s as genuine a response to The Tree of Life as I can muster. A more considered response next week.
But that omission gives me more room for the rest of this week’s releases. Florian Habicht’s Love Story charmed (most) of the Film Festival, including your correspondent. Habicht’s indefatigable curiosity and demonstrable love of people powers this strange romantic comedy made while he was living in Manhattan on an Arts Foundation residency.
The first thing you need to know about It’s Complicated is that it isn’t very complicated at all. The plot, the characters, the gags (dear God, especially the gags) are all perfectly comprehensible — even to those of us with only modest intellectual faculties. Rest assured, at no point will anyone be talking over your head in this one.
Nancy Meyer’s previous film was The Holiday, which easily remains in the bottom ten of the 1200+ films I have reviewed in these pages, so It’s Complicated earns a single point for not being that bad, but that’s where I run out of positives.
Meryl Streep plays Jane, successful baker and businesswoman, who has a drunken one-night-stand with her rogue-ish ex-husband, played by Alec Baldwin. He thinks that they should try again. She isn’t so sure — mainly because he is now married to the woman he left her for ten years earlier and she really doesn’t want to be the “other woman” to the “other woman”.
“My drumming sucks” — Richard Jenkins in The Visitor
Best known to New Zealand audiences as the deceased patriarch of the Fisher family in television’s “Six Feet Under”, Richard Jenkins has had a steady career in movies over the last 25 years, often in unsung supporting roles, but this year he has really left a mark.
Speaking to the Capital Times from his home in Rhode Island, Jenkins gave thanks to Thomas McCarthy, creator of 2004’s sleeper hit The Station Agent, for having faith in him despite his lack of marquee presence. “He asked me to read the script and I hadn’t read anything I liked more. But I told him, nobody’s going to give you the money with me in it!” But McCarthy persevered, even when one executive producer suggested just weeks before shooting that Morgan Freeman might be a more commercial choice.
2008 has been a great year for Jenkins. In the sophomoric buddy comedy Step Brothers he got to improvise scenes about dinosaurs with Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly; he was reunited with The Coen Brothers for Burn After Reading (in a part that was written for him); and in the sensitive indie he shines as a widowed academic brought back from a boundless depression by a chance New York connection with two illegal immigrants.
But carrying a film on his shoulders was a new experience. “I always wondered what it would be like, you know? Could I do it? But most of all, I didn’t want to let Tom down.” He needn’t have worried, as his performance anchors a typically humane McCarthy film about strangers thrown together and learning to appreciate and then love each other.
Jenkins continues to live in tiny Rhode Island where he moved after successfully auditioning for the Trinity Rep theatre company in Providence in 1970. He happily performed and directed there for 14 years, even spending four years as acting Artistic Director just as his film career was taking off.
The movie work has been so regular he hasn’t been on a stage since 1985 but he never anticipated a film career. ”I’d always loved film but frankly, it was easier to go the the moon,” he laughs. “A career is something you look back on rather than something you plan”.
Now he says he enjoys watching theatre more than he ever did (when he was acting in it) and tries to catch whatever he can, wherever he may be filming.
At the rate that Jenkins makes films (there are another four in the can for release next year), the law of averages suggests he will be shooting in Wellington before too long and he knows the talent we have to offer, describing working with Niki (Whale Rider) Caro on North Country as his best movie-making experience ever.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 3 December, 2008.
Back in the 70s, when I was about 8 years old, I watched a film on TV called Silent Running. In it Bruce Dern and three little robots tended the remains of Earth’s plant life on a giant greenhouse spaceship floating somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. I cried so much at the shocking ending (which had lonely robot Dewey, tending the forest with a battered watering can while the last of Earth’s flora drifted toward the edge of the solar system) that I don’t think I’ve ever been the same again. Last year, I rented the DVD to see if it had the same effect more than 30 years later and, sure enough, I dissolved on cue. Remarkable.
Pixar’s new animated triumph WALL•E owes a great deal to Silent Running, not least it’s dystopic view of human-planet interaction but also the faith in the healing power of anthropomorphic cuboid robots. WALL•E is the last functioning maintenance robot on an abandoned Earth, tidying up the enormous mountains of garbage left behind 700 years previously by the cowardly human population who ran for the stars. Lonely, without really knowing what lonely means, our hero meets EVE, a brilliant (as in shiny) search robot looking for signs of organic life. When she discovers some, and leaves to report back, WALL•E hitches a ride and ultimately finds himself saving civilisation.
It was perhaps a little too long for the restless pre-schoolers I shared a screening with, but for anyone and everyone else I whole-heartedly recommend it. And it won’t make you cry so much you throw up.
Regular readers will know that I have been quite the cheerleader for the new digital 3D technology (the U2 concert was stunning). Sadly, the first “live action” film to be produced using the process, Journey to the Centre of the Earth 3D, is still more of a side-show stunt than a test of the artistic potential of the technology. Brendan Fraser plays a geologist whose brother was lost on an exploration in some Icelandic caves and when he discovers secret coded notes in his brother’s dog-eared copy of the Jules Verne book, he decides to recreate the expedition, taking his nephew (plus last week’s CT cover girl Anita Briem) along for the ride.
Alister Barry is one of Wellington’s living treasures. His meticulously researched documentaries (including Someone Else’s Country and In a Land of Plenty) have successfully shone a light on the political and economic changes in New Zealand since the ‘new right’ transformation of the mid-80s in a way that nobody in the mainstream media has even attempted. His new film is based on Nicky Hager’s explosive exposé of shoddy National Party campaigning, The Hollow Men, and it’s interesting to me that the real-life footage of Don Brash presents a considerably less sympathetic portrait of the man than Stephen Papps’ excellent performance in the stage version at BATS. The leaked emails from Hager’s book revealed so many shenanigans that it’s hard to keep the story straight but Barry does a good job of emphasising that it is essentially the same team running National this time around.
I was lucky enough to preview the gorgeous BBC nature documentary, Earth, at the Embassy during the Festival and I’m pleased to see it return there for a short season. Unlike the tedious and repetitive ice doco The White Planet, this film uses the whole planet as a canvas for some marvellous images and, like WALL•E, the message is that we are stuffing it up at an alarming rate. Only the cutest animals and most colourful plants got through the auditions and Patrick Stewart plays the Morgan Freeman part as narrator.
After dismal experiences with Will Ferrell’s recent ice-skating and basketball films I wasn’t looking forward to Step Brothers, a low brow reunitement (new word!) with Talladega Nights co-star John C. Reilly, but blow me down I really enjoyed it! Ferrell and Reilly play two 40-year-old men, living at home, whose solo parents meet and marry each other, making them, you guessed it Step Brothers. It’s a 90 minute riff on one joke but you have to admire their total commitment to it.
Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging was made for teenage girls and I (despite my best efforts) am not one but, even though I lack the required cultural filters, I can’t understand why teenage girls would want to be portrayed as such shallow, tedious, screeching harpies. Boys, make-up, boys, the right kind of underwear, boys again. If these are our future leaders then I despair. Crikey, was Helen Clark like this when she was 14?
Profound, sensitive, emotionally arduous and perfectly structured, 4 Months follows a day in the life of student Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) as she selflessly tries to organise an abortion for her light headed friend Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), while fending off the attentions of family and boyfriend. As close to perfect as makes no difference.
Printed (for the most part) in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 24 September, 2008. Except for Earth, Step Brothers, Angus, Thongs, etc. and 4 Months which were cut for space.
In 2003 the paper-thin romantic comedy How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days paired Matthew McConaughey with Kate Hudson and made over 100 million dollars. The rules of Hollywood economics, plus the overwhelming dictates of focus groups and researchers, meant they would have to be reunited. So, as soon as Hudson’s baby-body was fit to be seen in a tiny bikini, they were off to the Bahamas to make Fool’s Gold, a buried treasure adventure set among the rich and beautiful.
McConaughey plays “Finn” Finnegan, a treasure hunter, and Hudson his soon-to-be ex-wife. She’s divorcing him because she’s a tight-ass and wants to finish her PhD. He is hopelessly in debt to hip-hop superstar Bigg Bunny who has been funding his search for lost Spanish gold. When he discovers a dinner plate sized clue he suckers Hudson and super yacht owner Donald Sutherland into joining the search, despite the violent attentions of Mr Bunny and competition from dodgy accented Ray Winstone.
Matthew McConaughey isn’t the laziest of our male Hollywood stars (Nic Cage takes that prize) but he has coasted for an enormous amount of time on what some might see as charm alone. Fool’s Gold doesn’t change that approach and your enjoyment will depend entirely on how much you appreciate McConaughey’s charisma as there isn’t much else to enjoy. Despite the Caribbean setting all the black characters are either villains or buffoons or both, Bigg Bunny (Kevin Hart) alone manages to supply two objectionable stereotypes at once. I hope that isn’t the result of a Hollywood focus group.
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story tells a heart-rending, and repairing, story of tragedy and redemption in the music business. Inspired by classy bio-pics like Walk the Line and Ray (and even La Vie En Rose, probably), Walk Hard stars perennial sidekick John C. Reilly as the eponymous Dewey, dumber than a sack of hammers but with a heart of lead, as he overcomes the tragic death of his brother in a machete accident (“the wrong kid died”, says his stone-faced father at every opportunity), the loss of his sense of smell and addiction to every substance on the planet short of cinnamon.
Films like Walk Hard are always hit and miss affairs and this one runs about 50–50. The targets are pretty soft, however, and I’d hoped that a writing team that includes Judd (Knocked Up) Apatow might have aimed a little higher. The best things in the film are the songs, well sung by the talented Reilly: my favourite is the 60s pro-midget protest song “Let Me Hold You, Little Man”.
It’s very hard to focus on a film when you spend most of it shaking your head in disbelief. Air Guitar Nation is a documentary following the first two American contenders in the well-established World Air Guitar Championship in Finland. The Yanks may have invented Rock but they have come second to the Air Guitar party, struggling with the more high-level concepts (“You can’t hold a gun, if you’ve got an air guitar in your hand”) and the serious intent of the Northern Europeans. But they do have old-fashioned showmanship on their side. Diverting.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 13 February, 2008.