It’s a little known fact in the movie industry that most cinema releases serve no greater purpose than to provide some advance publicity for an inevitable DVD release. This week seven new films were released into the Wellington market and barely more than a couple of them justified taking up space and time on a big movie screen.
First up, I Love You, Man – another in the endless parade of cash-ins on the formula literally coined by Judd Apatow with 40-year-old Virgin and Knocked Up. In this version usual side-kick Paul Rudd takes centre-stage as mild-mannered real estate agent Peter Klaven, engaged to be married but with no Best Man. All his friends are women, you see, and hijinks ensue as he attempts to generate some heterosexual male friendships and get some bro-mance in his life.
The key thing to point out here is that I love You, Man isn’t very funny and is very slow, but it will trot out the door of the video shop when the time comes, thanks to people like me giving it the oxygen of publicity. Dash it, sucked in again.
I don’t have much room this week and I want to spend most of it gushing over Slumdog Millionaire so let’s get started.
Back in 2003, when the Incredibly Strange Film Festival was still its own bumptious stand-alone anarchic self, we opened the Festival with the summer camp spoof Wet Hot American Summer and goodness me, wasn’t that a time? Written and directed by David Wain, WHAS was a pitch-perfect tribute to teen comedies of the 80s and his new film Role Models attempts to ride the current wave of sexually frank grown-up comedies but he doesn’t seem to really have the heart for it. The gross-out bits are uncomfortably gross, the boobies seem like afterthoughts and the film really doesn’t hit its straps until it starts cheering for the underdog late in the day.
Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott play salesman peddling energy drink to high school kids. After an unfortunate (stationary) road rage incident their jail time is converted to community service at Sturdy Wings – a ‘big brother’ outfit matching misfit kids up with responsible male adults. This kind of material has proved outstandingly popular recently when produced by Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and I can’t help thinking that if he had gotten his hands on Role Models it would have about 20% more jokes in 16% shorter running time – he really is that much of a machine.
It’s the weirdest coincidence. In two out of the three films I saw this week someone was shot in the ear. Seriously, go figure. Since I started this gig I’ve seen more than 400 films and no one has ever been shot in the ear and then, just like that, two come along at once.
That’s the only thing that connects two very different but very good films: Courtney Hunt’s debut thriller Frozen River and David Gordon Green’s very funny Pineapple Express. Frozen River is being sold as a thriller, and it does have some very tense edge-of-your-seat moments, but it’s actually a gritty drama about America’s rural poor with plenty of understanding and forgiveness running through its heart.
We open on a hard-faced woman’s tears. Melissa Leo plays Ray, whose husband Troy has given in to his gambling addiction and scarpered with the balloon-payment on their new trailer and it’s two days before Christmas. She’s bringing up her two children in a tiny trailer down a muddy driveway in a small town on the snowy border between New York state and Quebec, working part time in the Yankee Dollar store and trying to make ends meet.
Searching for the deadbeat husband at the local, Mohawk-run, bingo hall she meets Lila Littlewolf who is driving Troy’s abandoned car. Lila (Misty Upham) is a depressed young woman, living in her own lonely trailer, who intends to use the car to bring a few illegal immigrants in to the country, crossing the frozen river at the Indian reservation where the State Troopers can’t go. Needing money (and having rights to the car), Ray agrees to help, gambling everything she has on making a couple of trips so she can get her family through Christmas.
Gambling is the thread running through the film – the First Nation Mohawk people fund their programmes and maintain their independence through gambling and the working poor like Ray gamble every day that the few choices they have won’t see them falling through the cracks in the ice – metaphorically or in reality.
A brilliant debut, though not tightly-plotted enough to really qualify as a thriller, Frozen River is up there with 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days as an earnest representation of people who would otherwise be invisible to us.
Rogen also stars as pot-head process server Dale Denton, who witnesses a murder and, in his panic, hides out with his dealer Saul (James Franco). Unfortunately for both of them, this brings the wrath of the pot-mob down on both of them and they are chased across suburban Glendale by a motley crew of ruffians and hoodlums, all the while making good use of the herb that gives the film its title.
Rogen and Franco both came to producer Judd Apatow’s attention during the short-lived but well-loved tv show “Freaks & Geeks” (which also starred Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s Jason Segal) and their easy rapport is a strength that gets the film through some of its shakier moments.
Stocktaking the new digital 3D realm, we have now had an animated original (Beowulf), a couple of concert movies (including the brilliant U2), a live-action dud (Journey to the Center of the Earth) and now we see the results when Hollywood goes back to the vault and re-masters an older film for the new technology. The Nightmare Before Christmas from 1993 is an excellent introduction to the process (if you haven’t been tempted before). It was always a vivid and original production (watched over by Tim Burton) and the 3D really makes it pop.
Jack Skellington is the king of Halloween but is jaded and bored. Discovering Christmas-town, he decides that he wants Christmas all to himself and hi-jacks it (kidnapping Santa Claus in the process). Animated (using similar stop-motion techniques to the Aardman films) by Henry Selick, Nightmare is wonderful to look at and not too long for kids, although if you have little tolerance for musical thee-ater no amount of glorious 3D will counteract Danny Elfman’s soundtrack. Me, I loved it.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 29 October, 2008.
Due to exams I skipped a week writing for the CT so there was no scheduled entry for 5 November. You haven’t missed anything. Now, I have to start catching up on movies before I’m swamped by the Christmas rush. This year has gone by so fast.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall is an ideal post-Festival palate cleanser: a saucy comedy fresh off the Judd Apatow production line (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up). Here he gives the spotlight to one of his supporting players: Jason Segal (Knocked Up) plays tv composer Peter who within two minutes of the start of the film is dumped by tv star Sarah M. (Kristen Bell from “Veronica Mars”). He goes to Hawaii to recover only to discover that his ex is also there – with her new English rock star boyfriend. Very funny in parts, surprisingly moving at times thanks to a heartfelt performance from big lump Segal, FSM gets an extra half a star for featuring professional West Ham fanRussell Brand, playing a version of his sex-addicted stage persona.
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.
While the Film Festival takes up a justifiably huge chunk of time and mindspace during these two weeks the world of commercial cinema has hit back hard with two of the best films of the year.
Amazing Grace is a handsome period piece about the campaigning life of William Wilberforce, tireless toiler for social justice and what we now call human rights in the 19th century. The film focusses on his leadership of the movement to ban the transatlantic slave trade in the teeth of entrenched commercial and political opposition. 11 million African men, women and children were dragged from their homes, clapped in chains and forced to work in the plantations and refineries that fuelled the British Empire.
Wilberforce is played by Mr Fantastic (or Captain Hornblower, if you prefer) Ioan Gruffudd and, despite his lack of heavyweight credentials, he holds up nicely in competition with some of British cinema’s finest. The Great Gambon (most recently Dumbledore in Harry Potter), Rufus Sewell (The Illusionist), Toby Jones (Infamous), Stephen Campbell Moore (The History Boys) and the marvellous Albert Finney all get moments to rise above the occasionally clunky, exposition-heavy, script.
Finney, in particular, as the former slave-ship captain John Newton who actually wrote the hymn Amazing Grace (and the line “who saved a wretch like me” comes from deep inside a tortured conscience) is splendid.
Even better is Knocked Up, Judd Apatow’s brilliant follow-up to The 40 Year Old Virgin. Supporting actor in the earlier film, Seth Rogen, gets promoted to the lead as Ben Stone, a fun-loving layabout who gets his one night stand pregnant and then learns the hard way about responsibility, adulthood and love. Or you could say it’s about Katherine Heigl’s character Alison Scott, an ambitious reporter for the E! Channel who gets pregnant to a one night stand and then learns the hard way about family, sacrifice and pain.
Either way you choose it, Knocked Up is a wonderful film that shows a deep-seated love for life in all it’s gooey glory. The supporting cast are perfect, including (the sometimes patchy) Paul Rudd and Mrs Apatow, Leslie Mann, as the scary married couple our heroes use to alternately inspire or repel each other.
Judd Apatow made his name in television, writing and producing shows like “The Ben Stiller Show” and the great “Freaks and Geeks”. Another “Freaks and Geeks” alumni, Mike White, also has a feature out this week: Year of the Dog starring Molly Shannon. Shannon plays dowdy secretary Peggy whose beloved dog Pencil dies in somewhat mysterious circumstances leaving her alone to face the world.
In her attempts to replace Pencil with something (another dog, a man) she learns a little bit about the world and an awful lot about herself. Like Knocked Up there’s a contrast-couple, there to show our heroes what life might be like if only they gave up being themselves, in this case played by Laura Dern and Thomas McCarthy; and like Knocked Up there’s a lot of episodic comedy moments though with a much darker edge.
Year of the Dog is White’s first feature as director (after writing films like Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl and The School of Rock) and it seems as if he hasn’t directed this film so much as written and photographed it. That’s not to say that it isn’t enjoyable – it is. It’s just not terribly cinematic.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 25 July, 2007.
Nature of conflict: Year of the Dog opens at the Academy Cinema in Auckland on Weds 1 Aug. I do contract work for them designing and maintaining their website.