After the abject disaster that was the Nicolas Cage vehicle Next, I am surprised to report that Once Were Warriors director Lee Tamahori has made another film. And even more surprised to report that it looks quite interesting.
We’re born alone and we die alone and in between nothing goes according to plan and the people around us are mostly unreliable and occasionally malevolent. Meanwhile, God either doesn’t exist or is indifferent to our suffering. Either way, A Serious Man, the new film by the prodigiously gifted Coen Brothers, is a very serious film. It is also a very funny one.
In a mid-west University town in the late 60s, Physics Professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) has a happy family, a great career and a beautiful house in a nice neighbourhood. Actually, he has none of those things. His wife (Sari Lennick) has fallen for smooth-talking Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) and needs a Get (a formal Jewish divorce), his daughter wants a nose job, his son is preparing for his bar mitzvah by smoking dope and listening to rock music and his unsuccessful brother (the great Richard Kind) is sleeping on the couch and draining his cyst in the bathroom. At the same time, the tenure committee at the University is receiving anonymous complaints and his white-bread, red-neck neighbours are mowing their lawns in a particularly threatening way.
I’ve been grumpy all week for all sorts of reasons and the last thing I needed was a weekend of crappy films but that’s what I got. I mean, I’m spending longer writing this review than the writers of Fast & Furious or 17 Again spent on their scripts — put together, probably.
The improbably named Burr Steers is the director of 17 Again but that’s where the fun stops. Matthew Perry plays a 37-year-old former high school basketball star who chose the love of his pregnant girlfriend instead of a college scholarship and dug himself deep into a dowdy life of failure and regret. A mysterious bearded janitor, a bridge (a frankly insulting homage to It’s a Wonderful Life) and an unspecified magical event put him back in his buff 17-year-old body which he uses to re-engage with his children and get to know his wife again.
I’ve got some time for the television version of Matthew Perry (did you see “Studio 60”?), and despite his tragic cinema career choices he remains a comic actor who is unafraid of (or unable to suppress) the sadness behind his eyes. Unfortunately, he disappears after 15 minutes to be replaced by High School Musical ’s Zac Efron, a smug pretty-boy with some dance moves and no charisma and it is he who carries the film to its desolate conclusion.
Baltimore in the 60s must have been quite a place as it has inspired films like Barry Levinson’s Diner and Tin Men as well as the entire John Waters canon, from Mondo Trasho and Pink Flamingos to Hairspray and Cry-Baby in the 90s. Now Waters’ transgressive vision of outsider-dom has been absorbed in to the mainstream with the sanitised, PG, version of Hairspray, now transformed in to a Broadway musical and back on the screen. Full of stars having a gay old time, including the rarely seen Michelle Pfeiffer, Hairspray The Musical is a lot of fun and if the kids who enjoy it look up John Waters on the internet that would be a good thing too.
In Ratatouille, there’s a lovely moment when Remy, a French rat with a nose for fine food, discovers the beautiful possibilities of mixing flavours and a passion for fine cooking begins. The animation is beyond anything yet seen and the eye for the detail and respect for the kitchen is extraordinary — the chefs have scars on their hands and burns on their wrists — but the story doesn’t quite measure up to the technical achievement. Pretty entertaining, all the same.
Two films released this week go to prove that, even with millions of dollars of studio backing, making a film is very difficult indeed if you don’t really know why you’re doing it. The Invasion is a remake of two classic paranoid science-fiction films, both called The Invasion of The Body Snatchers, and stars Nicole Kidman as a psychiatrist trying to save her son who may be immune to the alien virus that is taking over the planet. While The Invasion may confirm everything you have always suspected about hotel catering, that may be all it is good for. A complete failure on almost every level.
Incredibly, The Invasion wasn’t even the worst film I saw that day. Lee Tamahori’s Next was even more listless than The Invasion and nobody involved looked even slightly engaged. A rogue nuke is missing somewhere in the continental United States and rogue FBI agent Julianne Moore manages to divert the entire investigation into finding Las Vegas magician Nicolas Cage because he has the ability to see two minutes into the future.
Meanwhile, the Russians and the French who have the nuke are also after Cage for no reason at all that I could work out. At one point an FBI agent watching Cage on a surveillance monitor exclaimed “Can you believe this shit?” and someone in the audience yelled “No!”. Actually, on reflection, that might have been me. Sorry.
Based on a best-selling memoir by successful academic and philosopher Raimond Gaita, Romulus, My Father is the story of a difficult childhood in 1960s rural Victoria. Both Gaita’s parents were Romanian immigrants, and due to the isolation, or perhaps some inherently Balkan moodiness, they both struggled with severe depression. Gaita’s mother (Run, Lola, Run’s Franka Potente) wasn’t really into being a mother until it was too late and his father (Eric Bana) never gets over the heartbreak of her abandonment.
The film is directed by actor Richard Roxburgh and his respect for his cast means we often linger a little longer on them than is necessary and the Victorian State by-law that says every film shot in the hinterland has to look like an oil painting is in full effect.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday, 12 September, 2007.
Notes on screening conditions: Hairspray viewed at a Sunday afternoon MoreFM radio preview at Readings (free haircare products — woohoo); Ratatouille screened commercially at a strangely not full session at the Empire in Island Bay on Friday night; The Invasion and Next were viewed at the earliest possible commercial screenings at Readings last Thursday beside Dom-Post reviewer Graeme Tuckett and Romulus, My Father was at the Penthouse on Monday afternoon and the print was in the poorest condition of any release print I have seen — looked like a gang of luminous green wasps in the middle of the screen.