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lars and the real girl

2008 comes to an end

By Cinema

Compelled once again by Christmas dead­lines to sum up the year in cinema, I have been think­ing a lot about how some movies stay with you and some don’t, how some movies have got aver­age reviews from me this year but have grown in my affec­tions, and how there are some films you want to see again and some you’re not so bothered about – even when you admire them.

So I’m going to divide my year up in to the fol­low­ing cat­egor­ies: Keepers are films I want to own and live with. Films I can expect to watch once a year – or force upon guests when I dis­cov­er they haven’t already been seen. Repeats are films I would­n’t mind see­ing again – rent­ing or bor­row­ing or stum­bling across on tv. Enjoyed are films I enjoyed (obvi­ously) and respec­ted but am in no hurry to watch again.

No Country for Old Men posterThe “keep­ers” won’t come as any great sur­prise: The Coen’s No Country for Old Men and PT Anderson’s There Will Be Blood were both stone-cold American mas­ter­pieces. NCFOM just about shades it as film of the year but only because I haven’t yet watched TWBB a second time. Vincent Ward’s Rain of the Children was the best New Zealand film for a very long time, an emo­tion­al epic. Apollo doco In the Shadow of the Moon moved and inspired me and I want to give it a chance to con­tin­ue to do so by keep­ing it in my house. Finally, two supremely sat­is­fy­ing music films: I could listen to Todd Haynes’ Dylan biop­ic I’m Not There. again and again, and watch­ing it was was much fun­ni­er than I expec­ted. Not mind­ing the music of U2, I did­n’t have a big hump to get over watch­ing their 3D con­cert movie, but what a blast it was! Immersive and involving, it was the first truly great digit­al 3D exper­i­ence. For the time being you can­’t recre­ate the 3D exper­i­ence at home so I hold out for a giant cinema screen of my own to watch it on.

Next lay­er down are the films I would­n’t mind watch­ing again, either because I sus­pect there are hid­den pleas­ures to be revealed or because a second view­ing will con­firm or deny sus­pec­ted great­ness. Gritty Romanian mas­ter­piece 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days has stayed with me since I saw it in March. Be Kind Rewind was rich enough (and good-hearted enough) to deserve anoth­er look. Martin McDonagh’s bizarre hit­man fantasy In Bruges rocked along at such a decent clip I need to see it again to make sure I did­n’t miss any of it’s eccent­ric pleas­ures. I liked and respec­ted the Coen’s oth­er 2008 entry Burn After Reading more than every oth­er crit­ic so a second view­ing would be use­ful, if only to con­firm that I appre­ci­ated it bet­ter than every­one else did… Or not.

Tropic Thunder posterIf I could just clip the Robert Downey Jr. bits from Tropic Thunder it would be a keep­er, instead I look for­ward to see­ing it again over Christmas. The same goes for the entire first act of WALL•E which I could watch over and over again. Sadly the film lost some of that magic when it got in to space (though it remains a stun­ning achieve­ment all the same).

Into the “Enjoy” cat­egory: Of the doc­u­ment­ar­ies released to cinemas this year, three stood out. The affec­tion­ate por­trait of Auckland theatre-maker Warwick Broadhead, Rubbings From a Live Man, was mov­ing and its strange­ness was per­fectly appro­pri­ate. Up the Yangtze showed us a China we could­n’t see via the Olympics jug­ger­naut and Young at Heart is still play­ing and should­n’t be missed.

The Edge of Heaven posterI made plenty of suc­cess­ful vis­its to the art­house this year. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was awe­some; The Edge of Heaven quietly enthralling; Irina Palm was sur­pris­ing. My review says I liked After the Wedding but I hardly remem­ber a thing about it. Also get­ting the art­house tick from me: The Counterfeiters, The Band’s Visit, the delight­ful hymn to tol­er­ance Grow Your Own and the glossy romance The Painted Veil.

Worthy indies that gave me faith in the future of US cinema included Ben Affleck’s Boston-thriller Gone Baby Gone; Ryan Gosling in love with a sex toy (Lars and the Real Girl); twee little Juno; nasty (in a good way) Choke; heart­warm­ing The Visitor and Frozen River (which was the best of the lot).

Space Chimps posterMainstream Hollywood was­n’t a com­plete waste of space this year (although the ghastly cyn­ic­al rom-coms 27 Dresses and Made of Honour would have you believe oth­er­wise). Ghost Town was the best romantic com­edy of the year; The Dark Knight and Iron Man were enter­tain­ing enough; I got car­ried away by Mamma Mia and the showstop­ping per­form­ance by Meryl Streep; Taken was ener­get­ic Euro-pulp; Horton Hears a Who! and Madagascar 2 held up the kid-friendly end of the deal (plus a shout-out for the under-appreciated Space Chimps) and, of course, Babylon A.D. (just kid­ding, but I did enjoy it’s campy insanity).

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 31 December, 2008.

Note that I delib­er­ately avoid choos­ing Festival-only films as dir­ect­ing people towards films they can­’t eas­ily see is just cruel.

Review: Lars and the Real Girl, The Eye, Never Back Down, Change of Address, Bonneville, ¿La Verdad? (The Truth?) and Definitely, Maybe

By Cinema and Reviews

In past columns this review­er has pretty much uni­lat­er­ally labelled 27 year old Ryan Gosling as the new Marlon Brando (thanks to extraordin­ary per­form­ances in Half Nelson and The Believer) but it is unlikely that even Brando would have been brave enough to choose Lars and the Real Girl as one of his pro­jects. Lars is a slightly dam­aged young man, liv­ing in the gar­age of his fam­ily home in a snowy north­ern American town. Under pres­sure from the fam­ily and the com­munity to be a bit more nor­mal, Lars finds him­self a girl­friend on the Internet – an ana­tom­ic­ally cor­rect doll named Bianca.

A lovely, sweet film about accept­ance, love and judge­ment (lack of), Lars is anoth­er win­ner in a sum­mer of them. Gosling’s per­form­ance is a thing of won­der but it would­n’t be half as suc­cess­ful without great work from Paul Schneider, Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson to play off. Kudos to them all. Not to be missed.

The Eye screened in Cinema 6 at Readings and was the most hand­some on-screen present­a­tion I have seen since I star­ted this gig: pin sharp focus, con­sist­ent light levels across the entire screen, no print dam­age and a per­fectly steady flicker-free image. It’s a shame that the film was such garbage but you take your pleas­ure where you can find it. (Flicker is the unac­know­ledged curse of poor pro­jec­tion. Watching a film without it is like walk­ing down Courtenay Place without the wind punch­ing you in the arm the whole way. You don’t real­ise how annoy­ing it is until it’s gone.)

Jessica Alba plays a blind con­cert viol­in­ist who gets a pair of haunted corneas in a trans­plant but instead of the real world she begins to see vis­ions of death all around her. Yet anoth­er tired remake of an asi­an hor­ror (this one came from Hong Kong ori­gin­ally) The Eye struggles and fails to jus­ti­fy its own existence.

Never Back Down is the ugly and offens­ive story of a high school kid (Sean Faris), angry and bit­ter after the death of his fath­er in a drunk-driving acci­dent he could have pre­ven­ted, who gets involved in the loc­al fight club and take on the bul­lies using mixed-martial-arts and the train­ing of a wise guru (Djimon Hounsou).

An arte­fact from a decrep­it and derel­ict cul­ture, I hated this film so much I left the theatre and imme­di­ately tried to loc­ate my Al-Qaeda applic­a­tion forms. Irredeemable.

But at least I stuck it out to the end which is more than I can say for the dreary French rom-com Change of Address. I don’t often leave films early but after yet anoth­er scene fea­tur­ing sev­er­al double-entendres about the main char­ac­ters horn (he plays and teaches French Horn) I was­n’t sure wheth­er I was watch­ing an art movie or “Are You Being Served?”

There must be an audi­ence for Bonneville, a pleas­ant road movie fea­tur­ing the great Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates and Joan Allen, though the attend­ance on Monday night would indic­ate oth­er­wise. It’s a shame there was nobody else there as there was some pleas­ure to be got from watch­ing great screen act­resses work­ing togeth­er in a story that was . Our trio play three mor­mon women (of vary­ing degrees of devo­tion) who are car­ry­ing the ashes of Lange’s hus­band to his estranged daugh­ter in California. Traversing the back­roads of Idaho, Utah and Nevada in the con­vert­ible that gives the film its name, they meet some inter­est­ing people, have some adven­tures and learn a bit about each oth­er. Nothing start­ling but per­fectly pleasant.

Opening Thursday for a lim­ited engage­ment is Helen Smyth’s remark­able loc­al doc­u­ment­ary about Cuba, ¿La Verdad? (The Truth?). On an exten­ded hol­i­day in Cuba in 2000 Smyth met a delight­ful old gen­tle­man named Nestor and spent sev­er­al weeks inter­view­ing him about his life before and after the revolu­tion. He iden­ti­fied him­self as an inde­pend­ent journ­al­ist and said he was too old to get any atten­tion from the secur­ity police so he could write what he liked and sup­port the counter-revolutionary organ­isa­tions in Miami. Well, the truth was infin­itely more inter­est­ing than even that.

The film is a lively test­a­ment to a good journ­al­ist’s instinct for a story as she finds her­self unrav­el­ling lay­ers of intrigue and learn­ing about more than a cen­tury of U.S. involve­ment in Latin America – all thanks to a chance meet­ing on a bus. Special men­tion must also be made of the pho­to­graphy, par­tic­u­larly Geoff Marsland’s Super 8 foot­age of mod­ern Cuba which adds so much to the fla­vour of the piece.

Finally, a sur­pris­ing win­ner called Definitely, Maybe: anoth­er romantic com­edy from the Working Title stable (Love Actually , etc). Ryan Reynolds (Smokin’ Aces) plays Will, about to divorce his wife. Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) is his 9 year old daugh­ter and, under­stand­ably upset about this turn of events, she demands to know how this could hap­pen. Were they nev­er in love? Will tells her the story of his romantic life (chan­ging the names) so she can see how com­plic­ated grown-up rela­tion­ships are. Which of the three sig­ni­fic­ant oth­ers over the peri­od 1992 to 1998 (Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz and Isla Fisher) becomes Mom? It’s actu­ally a lot more eleg­ant than I’ve made it sound, and well-observed, too, about lots of things (not least Presidential polit­ics). I’d watch it again, and I don’t think that very often.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 9 April, 2008 (although for cov­er photo reas­ons Aaron made The Eye the lead).

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: Lars and the Real Girl screened at a pub­lic pre­view in Penthouse 3; The Eye was almost per­fect in Readings 6 (coin­cid­ent­ally that is the Readings digit­al cinema so maybe the 35mm got a tweak recently); Never Back Down was a pub­lic mat­inée screen­ing at Readings; Change of Address was in the Bergman at the Paramount and the print was look­ing its age; Bonneville was in the Vogue Lounge at the Penthouse which has no digit­al sound and the sound was very poor – blown-speaker poor; ¿La Verdad? (The Truth?) was screened at home from a pre­view DVD and Definitely, Maybe was anoth­er pub­lic Readings mat­inée. I have to say for all their faults in terms of atmo­sphere the tech­nic­al con­di­tions at Readings are gen­er­ally excellent.