Back in 1968 the world was amazed to see a simian-looking creature displaying rudimentary (and yet clearly) human qualities. But enough about my birth, I’m here to talk about Planet of the Apes, the nightmarish vision of a world turned upside down: apes that speak, humans that are mute and enslaved, orangutans doing “science”. And of course, the big shock back then was that “it was Earth all along” – we’d caused this catastrophe ourselves with our environmental pig-headedness and our nuclear arrogance. The success of that blisteringly effective original prompted several sequels to diminished effect – although the sight (in Beneath the Planet of the Apes) of Charlton Heston pushing the final atomic button to destroy the planet in disgust at the whole sorry mess was seared on to my childhood brain forever.
In 2001 the series got the re-boot treatment courtesy of Tim Burton, a miscast Mark Wahlberg (when is he ever not?) and the final triumphant display of latex ape mask technology. Now the apes are back and there’s no sign of rubber anywhere to be found – except in some of the human performances perhaps. Rise of the Planet of the Apes serves as a prequel to the Burton film rather than a total from scratch effort – although there’s no equivalent in the original series – and the film does a terrific job of setting up a story that many of us already know as well as fondly honouring many details from the original series.
Taika Waititi’s Boy may well be the saddest comedy I’ve ever seen. Hmn, maybe I should put that another way: For a comedy, Boy might be the saddest film I’ve ever seen.
Consistently hilarious throughout, Boy steers a very careful course once it becomes clear that there is a very real heartache behind the laughter. A less confident filmmaker wouldn’t have even tried to perform that conjuring trick but Waititi turns out to have the talent to pull it off.
It’s 1984 and in the tiny East Cape village of Waihau Bay 11-year-old Boy (born as Alamein, after his father) has been left in charge of the whanau while his Nana goes to Wellington for a tangi. His little brother Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu) and his young cousins are looking to him for some parenting but the unexpected arrival of Alamein (Taika Waititi) sends all those plans packing.
Moon looks like one of the coolest films of the year. Written and directed by David Bowie’s son Zowie (now known as Duncan Jones), starring the effortlessly interesting Sam Rockwell and featuring 2001-crossed-with-Alien production design and a trippy plot that seems to require all your attention, Moon was one of the hits of the Festival and is now back for a full cinema release.
Rockwell plays “Sam”, a solo miner supervising operations on the surface of the Moon. The company he works for is digging up a special mineral used to fuel the Earth’s fusion power stations. He’s at the end of a three year gig and starting to go a bit stir crazy. His only company is a Kevin Spacey-voiced service robot named GERTY – a cross between HAL 9000 and the cute drones from Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running. GERTY makes him tea, patches his wounds and pretty much does everything else around the place except go outside and actually fix machines.
Never having seen an episode of Sex and the City on television, I’ll have to leave it to others to place it in context. From what I can gather, though, it appears to be about four women in Manhattan, not too bright, not too nice and not too deep, who are looking for love, success and shoes. The central figure in the group is Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) whose on-again, off-again relationship with Mr Big (Chris Noth) is about to become very much “on” with a huge society wedding and a penthouse 5th Avenue apartment with a closet bigger than the apartment building I live in. Amazingly, it is the closet that causes the most excitement, even when empty.
Meanwhile, Charlotte (Kristin Davis) is blissfully happy with her husband and adopted daughter Lily; Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) is somewhat less than happy to find out that her husband (David Eigenberg) has cheated on her and sex kitten Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is finding life in the shadow of a handsome daytime soap star to be less than fulfilling.
It all comes to a head at the wedding but not before (as well as during and after) we are forced to listen to many, many long conversations mostly about events we have just seen.
Untraceable is a perfectly serviceable thriller set in rainy Portland. Diane Lane is a widow working the FBI cyber-crime night-shift who discovers a crazed loon stringing up victims in front of a webcam. The more eyeballs he receives the faster his victim dies making everyone complicit in the eventual murder. Director Gregory Hoblit has an unparalelled tv background (“Hill Street Blues”, anyone?) and also directed the tight mind-games thriller Fracture last year and Untraceable is better than it sounds, effective and not nearly as exploitative as the trailer led one to believe.
Just like the U2 concert movie earlier this year, most of the people at the front of the Rolling Stones 2006 Beacon Theatre show (recorded for posterity by Martin Scorsese as Shine a Light) watched it via the screens on their cellphones. Heavens, people! Stop trying to record the life going on in front of you and just get in there and live it! (Written from the back row of a darkened cinema on a sunny day). Shine a Light shows the Stones off superbly – the sound is magnificent and the performance (from Jagger in particular) is stunning. Not enough Charlie Watts for my liking but that’s a minor quibble.
It doesn’t take long to establish why the latest George Clooney romantic-comedy has been buried either at sessions no one can get to or cinemas no one wants to visit. Leatherheads is an indulgent romp, feeding off Clooney’s nostalgia for old-time football and classic movies – a limited market. Set in 1925 at the birth of professional football, Clooney plays “Dodge” Connelly, an ageing player trying to keep his athletic dreams alive via the unprepossessing Duluth Bulldogs. As a last gasp attempt to get crowds to pro games he signs college star and war hero Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) to an exorbitant game by game contract and inadvertently changes the sport forever. He also gets hard-boiled newspaper-woman Lexie Littleton (a much less annoying than usual Renée Zellweger) who is trying to uncover the truth about Rutherford’s war record. Vaguely reminiscent of fast-paced verbal comedies like His Girl Friday and Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (and even The Sting), the best thing about Leatherheads is Randy Newman’s wonderful score.
Every great artist has major works and minor works. For Prince, for example, Sign O’ The Times is a major work and Alphabet StreetLovesexy isn’t. Mike Leigh’s major works include Naked, Secrets and Lies and All or Nothing and his minor list features Topsy-Turvy and now Happy-Go-Lucky, about primary school teacher Poppy (Sally Hawkins) and her family and friends. There’s not much story and not much development, but I think the reason why Happy-Go-Lucky fails is the lack of empathy for the characters (possibly caused by Leigh not having actors like Brenda Blethyn and Timothy Spall to make the emotional connections for him).
The second half of my contemporary working class London double-feature was Brick Lane, based on a novel I’ve actually read. On the death of her mother, Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee) is married off to priggish Karim (Christopher Simpson) in London where a life of grimy council flats and racist neighbours awaits. Clumsily condensed and fussily directed, Brick Lane never quite overcomes it’s own clichés.
Totally cliché-free and like nothing you have ever seen, Adam’s Apples is a very odd black comic fable about a white supremacist, Adam, sent to a remote country church to see out his parole period. There he meets a gaggle of eccentric, damaged or just plain barking characters, not least Ivan the priest (Mads Mikkelsen) who turns the other cheek so often it might as well be inside out. Full of surprises.
Finally, a couple of disposable (though probably not biodegradable) entertainments for the yoof: 21 is based on a true story about MIT students who use their phenomenal abilities at, er, counting to cheat the blackjack tables in Vegas. MIT is in Massachusetts and central character Ben (Across The Universe’s Jim Sturgess) is a fatherless scholarship boy so the film could have been called Good Will Counting. If it had any heart or soul or wit. 21 also features Kate Bosworth and Kevin Spacey in their thirdfilm together in less than four years.
And Prom Night is a run-of-the-mill slasher film featuring a high school science teacher with an infatuation for Brittany Snow (Hairspray). He kills all her family and then, three years later, escapes from detention to wreck her Prom party. Totally forgettable.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 11 June, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: All unremarkable screenings at cinemas notable for their attention to screening quality except for Adam’s Apples which is pretty scratchy and has a damaged soundtrack (Paramount) and Shine a Light whichlooked and sounded simply superb at the Embassy.
About a third of the way through Elizabeth The Golden Age, handsome pirate Walter Raleigh arrives at Court bringing his Queen gifts from the New World: potatoes in a box of soil and tobacco (bringing to mind that wonderful Bob Newhart routine: “Then what do you do, Walt? ha! ha! ha!… You set fire to it!”) But what Raleigh (played by Clive Owen with an old-fashioned movie star cool that he hasn’t mustered before) is really offering Elizabeth is the future; a future of gunpowder, international trade, science and empire. And for another 400 years Britannia will rule the waves.
Unlike some, I can’t comment too much on the historical accuracy of the film – it seemed pretty close to how I remember studying it as an eight year old – but absolute accuracy doesn’t seem to be the point. The portrait of a woman who has to become an icon (super-human and at the same time less than human) in order to preserve her people is ripe for a melodramatic Hollywood telling and director Shekhar Kapur and star Cate Blanchett don’t let us down.
This film is a sequel, of course, to the remarkably successful Elizabeth that launched Blanchett nearly ten years ago. That success means a bigger budget this time around – hundreds more extras, flasher sets and a rip-roaring maritime set-piece – but it is the supremely controlled Blanchett that dominates. As we rejoin the story her position is still insecure: challenged from the North by half-sister Mary Queen of Scots and from the South by Philip of Spain, the tussle is between Catholic superstition (and medieval brutality) and the enlightened religious tolerance that would allow an Empire to flourish. No wonder some Catholics aren’t happy with this version of history…
Fingers crossed that this year we’ll only get one fat, jolly, red-faced Santa movie after lastyear’s woeful bunch: but if we have to have one I’m pleased to report that Fred Claus isn’t too embarrassing. A fine cast, including Kevin Spacey and Miranda Richardson, have been gathered to tell the story of Santa’s big brother (Vince Vaughan) who left home in a sulk many years ago and is now a cynical repo man in Chicago.
Meanwhile Santa (Paul Giamatti) is stressed out as more and more kids are asking for more and more presents (not like the old days when one present per kid was enough). When Fred needs to be bailed out of chokey, Santa sees a chance to bring the family back together and get some extra help at the North Pole. The tone of the film is pretty random and the humour is hit and miss but Giamatti’s performance as Santa is so fine that, if he rolled it out in any other film, we’d be talking about award nominations. Seriously.
Diaspora and mass dislocation is the great story of the modern age – from the Irish fleeing the potato famine to the millions in Africa displaced by war or genocide. It’s no picnic abandoning your home and everything you know for the hint of a better life – ask your taxi driver – and Emanuele Crialese’s Golden Door plays as a worthy tribute to all those who have ever taken that risk. His film follows a turn of the (last) century Sicilian family escaping the grinding poverty of their island in the hope of getting to Walter Raleigh’s New World where money grows on trees and there are rivers of milk. Once there, they exchange one island for another (Ellis) where they are prodded and tested before being found worthy of America. Crialese’s eye for an arresting image and a lovely performance from lead Vincenzo Amato make Golden Door one of the unsung art-house films of the year.
Mr. Brooks is an odd fish – the film and the character. Kevin Costner plays successful self-made businessman Earl Brooks; he’s Portland’s Man of the Year but he has a secret. Not only is he a demented serial-killer but he has an imaginary friend (William Hurt) who sits in the back seat of his car getting him in to trouble so its a bit like a grown-up version of Drop Dead Fred. Costner’s tendency to underplay everything means we never get a real sense of the torment under the button-down façade but at least he is consistently interesting, unlike the sub-plot involving the cop chasing him (Demi Moore) and her divorce.
For space reasons, only the Elizabeth segment of this review was printed in the Capital Times, Wednesday 21 November, 2007. For some reason they then printed a version of it again in the Films of the Week section at the back of the book, instead of some more of my gorgeous prose. I love them like family, and am intensely grateful for the opportunity to do this in front of an audience, but would like to point out that I don’t have anything to do with the strangely edited “Films of the Week” apart from providing the raw material.