The best way I can think of to sum up Jobs, the hastily-prepared not-quite adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s hastily-published biography of the Apple co-founder, is that its subject would have hated it. After all, Steve had taste and – famously – exercised it. He also didn’t release products until they were ready whereas Joshua Michael Stern’s film feels like the winner of a race to be first rather than best.
Ashton Kutcher impersonates Mr. Jobs effectively enough, to the extent of mimicking the man’s strange lope, but never gets further under his skin than a blog post or tabloid headline might. I suspect that is not a comment on Mr. Kutcher’s talent but on the episodic script by first-timer Matt Whiteley. Josh Gad’s Woz provides comic relief only and the amount of fake facial hair on offer suggests the film might better have been titled iBeard.
Operating on a much deeper level is Daniel Borgman’s The Weight of Elephants, a film that prioritises what goes on under the surface almost to the complete exclusion of plot. Gorgeous Demos Murphy plays 10-year-old Adrian, living with his depressed Uncle Rory (great Matthew Sunderland) and Gran (Catherine Wilkin) in suburban Invercargill. The strange disappearance of three local children has an upsetting effect on a boy who is struggling to fit in to the world around him anyway.
OK, so here’s how this is supposed to work. I watch a whole lot of films, give you a hopefully spoiler-free rundown of what they’re about, offer you my impressions and then – based on what you’ve read of me in the past – you can decide whether to drop some folding on a night at the pictures, wait for a DVD to come out or (if you are a student with no morals) download something to not watch later.
Now, my taste just so happens to be impeccable so you could do a lot worse than follow my every recommendation but this week I totally surprised myself and I’d be fascinated to see if many of you respond in quite the same way.
Secretariat was a racehorse – a very successful racehorse. In 1973 it was the first horse for 25 years to win the Triple Crown (the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont) and is widely acknowledged to be the finest Thoroughbred that ever lived. I know next to nothing about racing – and could care even less – and yet I watched Randall Wallace’s biopic of the horse with tears in my eyes from start to finish. I haven’t been milked like that since The Pursuit of Happyness back in 2007 and frankly Secretariat had no right to do that to me. I mean, it’s all been seen before and it’s certainly not as if you don’t already know what’s going to happen. And yet… and yet… I adored it.
Half way through Winter’s Bone I found myself thinking, “So, this is what the Western has become?” The best Westerns are about finding or sustaining a moral path though a lawless frontier and the frontier in Winter’s Bone is the hidden world of the rural poor and the path is a strange and terrifying one.
In the rough and remote Ozark Mountains, teenage Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is single-handedly bringing up her two young siblings while caring for her emotionally damaged mother. One cold morning the Sheriff turns up with the news that her father, Jessup, used their house as his bail bond and unless Ree can find him and persuade him to turn up for Court, the family will lose everything.
Jessup is (or maybe was) what we would call a ‘P’ dealer – the only economy in the area showing any kind of growth. But the company he was keeping were the meanest of the mean and to find her father Ree must venture into dangerous territory.
So, it’s the school holidays and the nippers are bouncing off the walls. You’re not allowed to just leave them in the car while you play the pokies anymore so it’s time to get creative. There are plenty of kid-friendly movie options around and the only drawback is that you might have to sit and watch with them.
In G‑Force 3D guinea pigs save the world from – actually I can’t tell you as the twist is quite a good one. A top secret research project involving Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover) and rodents with the voices of Nic Cage, Sam Rockwell and Penélope Cruz is pressed into service when an entire consumer brand (toasters, coffee makers, etc) goes berserk. The animation is first class (and CGI rodents are always cute) but the film as a whole never really gets going. It’s a Bruckheimer production so was probably consumer tested beyond endurance.
Another fictional consumer brand gets a pummelling in this new era of anti-commercialism in Shorts , Robert Rodriguez’ spunky and inventive, low budget effort. Black Industries make a Black Box – an all-in-one portable everything device that turns out not to be nearly as cool as the rainbow magic wishing stone that causes havoc everywhere it goes. Pitched slightly younger than G‑Force, and without the polish, it is still worth a look.
Oh, what kind of year is 2008 that has two Coen Brothers films within it? In February I was swooning over No Country for Old Men and now, just a few short months later, I’ve been treated to Burn After Reading, a scathing and bitter comedy about modern American ignorance. It’s a vicious, savage, despairing and brilliant farce: full of wonderful characters who are at the same time really awful people.
John Malkovich is Osbourne Cox, a failed CIA analyst who loses a disk containing his memoirs. It’s found by Hardbodies gym staff Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt, who decide to blackmail him so that she can pay for some unnecessary cosmetic procedures. Meanwhile (and there’s a lot of meanwhiles), Malkovich’s wife (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with sex addict George Clooney, who is cheating on her, and his wife, with Internet one night stands (that include the lonely McDormand). The disk ends up at the Russian Embassy, Pitt ends up in the Chesapeake and the only truly nice person in the whole film ends up with a hatchet in his head.
It’s no accident that this collection of mental and spiritual pygmies can be found populating Washington D.C. Over the last eight years it has become the world centre of incompetence, venality, short-sightedness and political expedience and the film plays as an enraged satire about the end of the American Empire. We can only hope.
The self-indulgent partnership between Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe gets another trot out in Body of Lies, a laboured action-thriller about anti-terrorism in the Middle East. Half-decent Leonardo DiCaprio is the lead. He plays honourable field agent Roger Ferris, hunting the Osama-like Al Saleem from Iraq to Jordan via Amsterdam and Langley. Crowe spends most of the film coaching DiCaprio via cellphone and a good olé boy Southern accent. The twist in this film is that he is a boorish, ignorant, arrogant oaf who fails to appreciate that winning hearts and minds is essential to win the war on terror: DiCaprio’s character, an arabic speaker with an appreciation for the region and its people, is continually being hung out to dry by his bosses who simply don’t think the Middle East is worth anything more than the oil that lies beneath it.
Unfortunately for Body of Lies (a terrible, meaningless title), the whole film is thick with cliché and while Scott’s eye for a set-piece remains keen his ear for dialogue is still made of tin.
Another terrible nothing title (but for a better film) is The Duchess. A naïve young Spencer girl is plucked from Althorp to marry a powerful older man. She soon finds that it is not a love match and that her emotionally closed off husband sees her as a baby factory while he enjoys life with his mistress. Our heroine uses her celebrity to bring attention to political causes and falls in love with a handsome young man, but happiness and freedom is always too far away. Sounds familiar, I know, but this story isn’t set in the 1990’s but in the 18th century and this Spencer isn’t Diana, but her eerily similar ancestor Georgiana (Keira Knightley).
Knightley is fine as the spirited, but eventually broken, young woman; Ralph Fiennes has good moments as the brutish Duke of Devonshire and Charlotte Rampling delivers another icy turn as Georgiana’s calculating mother. The Duchess is a fine history lesson with some nice observations: my favourite is the paparazzi at every social occasion, pencils sharpened to sketch the scandals as they unfold.
Sadly, I have been too busy in recent weeks to preview any of the titles in this year’s Italian Film Festival but the programme looks a good and interesting one as always. The films in the Italian Festival have always leaned towards the commercial and this year is no different. Crowd pleasing comedies like The Littlest Thing rub shoulders with romances like Kiss Me Baby, dramas (The Unknown Woman) and thrillers: Secret Journey. My pick looks like it could be a combination of all those genres, the romantic black comedy Night Bus. Moving to the Embassy this year should do the event the power of good but it’s a pity about the poorly proofed programme though.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 15 October, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: All three films were screened at the Empire in Island Bay. Body of Lies and The Duchess were at public screenings and Burn After Reading was the Sunday night print check (for staff), so thanks to the Empire people for inviting me to that.
Let’s get the unpleasantness out of the way first: watching The Farrelly Brothers’ ugly remake of Neil Simon’s The Heartbreak Kid was a trial beyond all human endurance. After about 20 minutes I was begging for release (which came shortly afterwards as blissful unconsciousness overtook me). Sadly, no studio executive will ever get fired for green-lighting a racy Ben Stiller romantic comedy so no matter how bad this one is it won’t be the last one we are forced to endure.