In the last (non-Rancho) post I made a commitment to get back in to regular reviewing and to end my year-long sabbatical. (For the reasons behind the hiatus, it is recommended that you have a quick read. Go on, I’ll wait here.) It has come as a bit of a surprise to me that I’ve actually seen as much as I have over the last few months. It didn’t feel like it but — thanks to Radio New Zealand, FishHead and Rancho Notorious — fully 18 of the films currently screening around Wellington are films I can actually have an opinion on.
Anyway, here goes, and I might as well start with the oldest first. Which, as it turns out, is also a contender for the worst film in this post.
I’ve never managed to hide my disdain for Little Miss Sunshine, a film which is beloved by many and held up as an example of quality screenwriting to which we all should aspire. It is, in fact, garbage. A collection of tics masquerading as characters stuck in a contrived-cute situation in which life lessons will be learned too easily and happy endings will be unearned. Theodore Melfi’s debut feature St. Vincentalso falls into all these traps only deeper. It also relies so heavily on the great Bill Murray that it manages to even bring him into disrepute.
Due to a parade of wonderful Film Festival screenings your correspondent was only able to get to one of this week’s new releases (and, thanks to the Empire’s failure to open on Sunday morning nearly didn’t make that one) so Glee: the 3D Concert Movie and rom-com Something Borrowed will have to wait until next week’s column. I’m sure you are breathless with anticipation. But this means that Cowboys & Aliens — Jon Favreau’s third comic book adaptation in a row after Iron Man 1 and 2 — gets the full review treatment. Does it deserve it? We shall see.
The scene is frontier New Mexico between the end of the Civil War and the arrival of the railroad. A tiny little town, built for a gold rush that never materialised, is only kept alive because of grumpy Harrison Ford’s cattle business. In the desert outskirts Daniel Craig wakes up with amnesia, a strange metal bracelet and an ability with unarmed combat that soon scores him a horse, a gun and a dog.
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.
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.
This week’s Capital Times cinema review (published 18 October), featuring Out of the Blue (Robert Sarkies); Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris) and Junebug (Phil Morrison). Updated.