Like students swotting for exams New Zealand film distributors seem to have run out of year for all the films they have to release so there are some really big names being squeezed into the next two weeks. If you can’t find something to watch on – the inevitably wet – Boxing Day next Monday, then I suspect you don’t really like movies at all. And if that sounds like you, why are you still reading?
The biggest of the big names this Christmas has got to be The Advenures of Tintin. Despite Steven Spielberg’s name on the tin, it’s almost a local production when you consider the technology and skills that went into its manufacture, so we all have a small stake in its success. Luckily, Europe has embraced it so a second film has already been confirmed – and will be made here.
But enough of the cheerleading – what did I think of it? It’s good, really good. The performance capture and character design works better than ever before, Spielberg has embraced the freedom from the laws of physics that animation allows and throws the camera around with gay abandon – but always with panache and not to the point of motion sickness. Many of the visual gags are terrific and Andy Serkis as Haddock proves that there is no one better at acting under a layer of black dots and ping pong balls.
So, after trawling through the many thousands of words written about cinema in these pages this year, I suppose you want me to come to some conclusions? Do some “summing up”? Help guide you through the great video store of life? Well, alright then. Here goes.
We don’t do Top Ten lists here at the Capital Times – they are reductive, facile and, frankly, you have to leave too many titles out. I have taken to dividing my year’s viewing up into categories: keepers are films I want to have in my home and watch whenever the mood takes me; renters are the films that I could happily watch again; then there are the films that I enjoyed but am in no hurry to repeat, the films I might have misjudged first time around, the films I can’t get out of my head (for better or worse), the films I am supposed to love but you know, meh, and most important of all – the films you should avoid as if your very life depends upon it.
First, the keepers: a surprise for some will be Fantastic Mr. Fox which was released after my 2009 Year in Review was submitted and the only film in the list that I already own. Animal Kingdom was the film I most recommended this year – a stunning, tense piece of work that gripped me totally.
God is in the house this week. He turns up in the values of a wealthy Tennessee family who adopt a poor black kid and turn him into a champion, He features in a big leather book carried across a post-apocalyptic America by enigmatic Denzel Washington, and He is notable for His absence in a Lars von Trier shocker that is unlike anything you will have seen before or see since.
First, the good version. Based on a best selling book by Michael Lewis, The Blind Side would not have made it New Zealand screens if it wasn’t for Sandra Bullock’s surprise Oscar win earlier this year and it’s easy to see why distributors might have left it on the shelf. Personally, I’m glad they didn’t. My companion had no knowledge of, or affinity for, American Football or the complex and baffling college sports structure and was, therefore, a bit left out of a story that managed to push all my buttons fairly effortlessly.
Dedicated to Anderson’s hero, Robert Altman, Blood is a beast of a different colour to Old Men: a heavy-weight Western-style epic pouring oil on the myth of the American dream and then dropping a match on it. The amazing Daniel Day-Lewis plays independent prospector, oil man and misanthrope Daniel Plainview. Determined to separate simple people from the oil under their feet he uses his adopted child in order to resemble an honest family man while he plots the downfall of his enemies.
There Will Be Blood ruthlessly dissects the two competing powers of 20th Century American life: capitalism and religion, each as cynical and corrupt as the other. Paul Dano (the comically mute son in Little Miss Sunshine) is a revelation as charismatic pastor Eli Sunday, the only character strong enough to merit a battle of wills with Plainview – a battle to the finish.
Listless rom-com 27 Dresses comes to life for one amusing montage of weddings and dresses (about half way in) but otherwise this star-vehicle for Katherine Heigl (Knocked Up) seems under-powered. She’s joined in the film by James Marsden (Enchanted) (not normally a cause for rejoicing, and so it proves once again here) and Malin Akerman (The Heartbreak Kid) who isn’t nearly as funny as she thinks she is. Heigl plays a supposedly plain, self-effacing, young woman who organises the lives (and weddings) of all those around her while secretly pining for a wedding of her own with Boss Ed Burns.
Rogue Assassin is big and dumb and doesn’t even succeed on it’s own limited terms. Former member of the British Olympic Diving Team, Jason Statham (Crank) plays an inexplicably English-accented FBI agent in the Asian Crime Unit. He’s on the trail of an ex-CIA hitman named Rogue (Jet Li) who is engaged in a Yojimbo-like plot to destroy San Francisco’s Yakuza and Triad gangs. Fans of Jet Li’s trademark balletic martial arts will be disappointed as anything more than standing around looking stern seems to be beyond him now. The daft twist at the end will provide some much-needed amusement.
Danish provocateur director Lars von Trier recently announced his retirement from filmmaking due to depression. He hasn’t ceased involvement in film, though, as his company Zentropa is still producing some of the most unusual and challenging films around and Red Road is a perfect example, the first release in a new project called The Advance Party. Zentropa producers Lone Scherfig & Anders Thomas Jensen (Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself) created several characters and then gave those characters (and a set of rules about how they should be used) to three writer-directors in the hope that the three films together would prove greater than the sum of the parts.
The first film, Andrea Arnold’s Red Road, isn’t just an interesting experiment, it’s actually very good. Lonely Glasgow CCTV operator Jackie (Kate Dickie) is haunted by an unspecified tragedy from her past. When she sees an unexpected face on her monitor she, in spite of herself, is forced to confront him and her own grief. The Red Road council estate, that gives the film it’s name, makes Newtown Park Flats look like the Isle of Capri, and the whole thing has a Loach-ian grit that is happily well-balanced by some beautiful cinematography. The film itself plays out slowly, but not inevitably, and the surprise revelation at the end is less powerful but somehow more moving than you expect.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 20 February, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: There Will Be Blood screened at Rialto Wellington on Saturday afternoon. The image was incorrectly masked so that the vertical cyan soundtrack along the left of the screen was clearly visible throughout. The projectionist was alerted but he shrugged his shoulders and said there was nothing he could do about it. We have about six more weeks of Rialto Wellington and I volunteer to swing the first wrecking-ball.