Local audiences can pretend they are Academy voters for the next few weeks because almost all the big nominees are being released at the same time. It’s the NZ way — try and maximise attention for your films while they are still contenders but before they become losers. It makes for a crush at local screens — you may not find the film you want at the time you want — but it also means the odds of seeing something really good are much better than usual.
Spielberg’s Lincoln is classy old school filmmaking, as you might expect from such a veteran. He’s assembled an A‑team of writers, performers and technical crew to tell one of the most important — and resonant — stories of the last 150 years. Abe Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) has been re-elected to his second term as President and the painful and bloody Civil War is almost won. Why would he risk his considerable political capital to try and pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the constitution — prohibiting slavery — when the slave-owning south is almost defeated and many on his own side don’t feel it is necessary?
The most pleasure I have had in a cinema so far this year wasn’t at a film. In 2011, the New York Philharmonic produced a brief concert revival of Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece about emotional opportunity cost, Company. For three performances only, they assembled a star-studded cast of well-known television faces including Stephen Colbert, Jon Cryer and Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks, alongside Broadway veterans like Patti LuPone, and the show was filmed in high-definition for distribution to cinemas around the world. Several Wellington picture houses are playing this sort of alternative content these days — the Metropolitan Opera etc — so, eventually, this stunning production was likely to arrive here and, golly, I am so glad it did.
In Company, Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother) plays Robert — a 35 year old confirmed New York bachelor surrounded by married and soon-to-be-married friends. Throughout the show they give him some good, bad and indifferent advice about the importance of relationships versus freedom and independence versus — well — company. This is a concert production so the orchestra is on the stage rather than tucked away in a pit, and director Lonny Price does marvels with the shallow area that remains. Transitions are inventive and smooth and the characters somehow manage to relate to each other despite being — as Sondheim would have it — side by side.
For years I’ve been complaining about films that give audiences everything on a plate — they tell what you should be thinking and feeling, leaving no room for us. This week I have nothing to complain about as three out of our four make you work for your rewards (although three tough emotioanl and intellectual workouts in one weekend turns out to be pretty draining).
Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine is a terrific indie achievement, brave and uncompromising, emotionally raw but intelligent at the same time. A relationship is born and a relationship dies. Bookends of the same narrative are cleverly intercut to amplify the tragedy (and tragedy is a fair word to use — there’s a beautiful child getting hurt in the middle of all of this).
Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) meet and fall in love. He’s a dropout starting again in New York. She’s a med student with an unhappy home life and a douchebag boyfriend. Five or six years later she’s a nurse trying not to think about unfulfilled potential and he’s a house painter who drinks too much.
The most purely emotional experience I have had in a cinema this year was watching the delightful documentary Young @ Heart during the Film Festival. It’s a life-affirming (and by its very nature death-affirming too) portrait of a group of Massachusetts senior citizen choristers who tour the world with a programme of (often consciously ironic) rock and pop classics and it starts out like the quirky British tv programme it was originally intended to be. But then these remarkable, loveable, buoyant characters take control and by the time they get to Dylan’s Forever Young, I may as well have been a puddle on the floor of the cinema. Young at Heart is so successful I even fell in love with Coldplay for about five minutes. It’s that good.
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 ole 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 naive 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.
Keira Knightley may only be 23 but (along with Daniel Craig and Simon Pegg) she’s been given the unenviable job of saving the British film industry, a challenging task for someone with talent but a hard road for a young woman still learning a craft for which she often seems ill-suited. Next week we will review the mid-budget costume drama The Duchess but right now she is headlining another WWII romance (c.f. Atonement), John Maybury’s The Edge of Love.
Knightley plays Vera Phillips, a young Welsh girl carving out a living entertaining the troops in the underground bomb shelters of burnt out London. In an awfully clunky screenwriting moment she sees a familiar face across a crowded pub and calls out “Dylan? Dylan Thomas?” and is reunited with her childhood sweetheart. After plenty of flirting, the soon-to-be great poet Thomas (Matthew Rhys) introduces her to his wife Caitlin (Sienna Miller) and a firm friendship begins, a friendship that veers in the direction of a (hinted at) ménage à trois and ends (with the help of Phillips’ shell-shocked husband Cillian Murphy) in a hail of misdirected bullets on a picturesque Welsh cliff top.
Miller’s notorious tabloid existence has a tendency to overshadow her day job, which is a shame as she is very good here and she carries almost all the emotional weight of a film that, frankly, needs all the help it can get. Rhys is fine (and reads the Thomas poetry like he’s channelling Richard Burton) but Knightley struggles, although she has her moments.
In The Orphanage, a woman (Belén Rueda) and her husband (Fernando Cayo) decide to buy the decaying old gothic orphanage where she grew up so they can live there with their adopted, HIV-positive, young son (Roger Princep) plus his imaginary friends. Asking for trouble? You bet. The boy soon disappears, perhaps into a cave beneath the house, and the distraught mother has to solve the mystery of the cursed house before she can find him again.
I would have been considerably more effected by this film if the first half hadn’t been out of focus (and if the projectionist hadn’t forgotten about the reel change or needed to be told to focus the second half) but once we’d got all that sorted out the moody atmospherics (greatly aided by an effective surround sound design and the excellent Paramount sound system) push all the right buttons. Produced by Guilermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), The Orphanage is stylish horror with a heart. I much prefer this sort of thing to the Japanese productionline versions we see so often.
It’s really saying something when a director disowns a Vin Diesel film for not living up to his vision but this is what Mathieu Kassovitz has done with Babylon A.D. Apparently studio-dictated cuts have turned his subtle and sensitive political and moral allegory into a bloodthirsty shoot ’em up. As they saying goes, yeah right. Freely ripping off dozens of hit films (from Escape from New York to Blade Runner, The Matrix and Resident Evil), the cuts have rendered what might have been a campy classic into incoherence but it’s not un-entertaining.
My favourite cinematic shark is Bruce from Finding Nemo (played by Barry Humphries), a misunderstood killing machine with abandonment issues. If he’d seen Rob Stewart’s enervating documentary Sharkwater he would know that he’s not a killer at all — more people die each year as a result of Coke machine misadventure — and that he is in far greater peril from us than the other way around.
In fact the whole film owes a lot to Pixar’s Nemo, often recreating famous images from that film and, if it wasn’t likely to traumatise them, I’d recommend every child who ever saw Nemo be forced to sit and watch it so they might turn into passionate eco-terrorists when they grow up.
As agit-prop doco makers go I think I prefer Morgan Spurlock to Michael Moore. Spurlock (who sprang to fame with the McDonalds’ exposé Super Size Me in 2004) interviews people without setting them up to look stupid or venal and his everyman open-ness gives the impression that he is genuinely curious rather than embittered and certain. In Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? Spurlock is spurred by the his long- suffering girlfriend Alex’s pregnancy to go the middle east and find out why they want to kill us all. And if he finds Osama Bin Laden in the process, all well and good. I could have done with less of the cheesy video game analysis of complex global politics but when Spurlock goes out of his way to meet ordinary people on the streets of Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, Pakistan and Afghanistan you can’t help but feel a little bit enlightened and a little bit heartened.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 8 October, 2008.
Nothing of note to report regarding screening conditions except the problems with The Orphanage that have already been reported above.
UPDATE: A friend wrote to me after reading the Sharkwater review in the CT:
“I don’t think much of your Sharkwater review. It really doesn’t tell anyone what the film is about and why people should see it, and secondly you totally belittle the issue by comparing it to a kids cartoon! It’s the most disturbing film I’ve seen all year, and as you know I’ve seen quite a lot. Even now I feel utterly guilty eating fish, though it is the only animal flesh I can’t seem to give up. At least the Lumiere reviewer urged people to boycott the many Wellington restaurants that serve shark fin soup. The director is slightly irritating I admit, but the content is crucial… you can’t joke about films like this, unless it’s garbage (like Where in the World is OBL for example…).