If aliens have been looking down on Earth, watching us with love and amusement over the last few million years (as so many movies have told us they are), they will surely be very worried about recent developments in our culture and what it all means for us as a species. I know I am.
On the surface, the cinematic trend towards “torture porn” films like Hostel and Saw – and their even more dismal cousin The Collector – betrays a weird human human ability to take pleasure in the extreme pain of others that is at odds with how we most of us actually live our lives. I’m curious. What does it all mean?
This was the question I found myself asking as I watched Kevin Greutart’s Saw VII on Saturday afternoon (I say “watched” as, per usual, I found myself staring at the cinema EXIT signs during the more gruesome passages). On closer inspection it’s clear that what we have here is an Old Testament-style morality tale, updated for the attention-deficit, sensation-seeking, modern generation.
And there’s this hideous thing they make you do when you go up for a television show: they make you sign a contract before you walk into the final audition. The last thing they want is for you to have everyone fall in love with you, and then you not have a deal in place. So you sign this thing – and I had no money; I was broke. You’re staring at the five-figure pay cheque you’ll get… if… If! A crazy amount of money for someone who has none. So I was thinking: I’ll pay my loans off and do this and that and maybe get my car fixed… and by that time they’re calling you in, you’re like: ‘Shit! I have to do the scene! What the fuck are the lines?’ I would get hung up on that stuff and be an utter failure in the room.”
Hamm displays an admirable amount of self-awareness in this interview, promoting his new feature film The Town (directed by Ben Affleck). Part of Hamm’s success as Don Draper is the tiny amount of “I can’t quite believe this is happening to me” he manages to project.
Back before the days of “Iron Chef”, “Masterchef” and “Hell’s Kitchen”, television’s top food expert was a very tall, slightly ungainly, woman who sounded a little drunk. She was Julia Child and in the 60s she taught America how to cook. In an era where tv dinners, pre-prepared sauces and easy cake mixes were top of a busy housewife’s shopping list, Child produced the almighty tome Mastering the Art of French Cooking which went on to sell millions of copies and make her a legend.
A little later on, 2002 in fact, New Yorker Julie Powell started an online project to reproduce every recipe in the famous cookbook (over 500 of them) in a single year. Nora Ephron’s new film Julie & Julia skilfully merges the two stories, freely noting the parallels between them, and managing to produce a warm and witty film that honours the remarkable Child.
Clint Eastwood has been on our screens for over 50 years and at 78 years old he has decided to call it a day and his valedictory performance in Gran Torino is completely worthy of the man. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a working class widower living on a suburban Detroit street, one of the few original residents still around as the neighbourhood fills up with Hmong immigrants. In a gang initiation his teenage neighbour Thao tries to steal Walt’s beloved 1972 Gran Torino (a car he helped build on the Ford assembly line) and, as penance, the kid is forced to work for Walt over the summer. They get to know each other – and the threat from the Hmong gang-bangers who now have an axe to grind with Walt as well as Thao and his family.
Finally, we have a week with only one new film in it: a chance for me to stretch my legs, extemporise, riff a little, get my hands dirty. Yeah, I’ve been looking forward to this, to prove I can be a real film critic and write erudite and cultured prose; place a film in its wider social, political and cultural context; discuss mise-en-scène and diegetic register, all the while providing a riveting (and undeniably “correct”) perspective on the film’s merits and qualities. Cool.
Unfortunately, the film that stands alone this week is the Keanu Reeves remake of the 1951 classicThe Day the Earth Stood Still and frankly its hardly worth the bother. The original film was a pulp parable playing on the nuclear paranoia of “duck and cover” America: an alien lands in Central Park to tell us that he’s going to destroy the human race because we don’t deserve to live (we are warlike, brutal and selfish creatures you see, and the earth is too precious to be left in our care). But, the stern humanoid alien Klaatu softens on contact with a human child and realises that our capacity for change makes us worth persevering with. Naïve but satisfying.
The new version keeps the guts of the story intact (ecological doom and homeland security make up the new paranoia) while overblowing everything else to giant size. Reeves deadpans his way through as Klaatu (sensibly staying well within the limits of his range) and he’s joined by the mid-market star power of Jennifer Connelly, “Mad Men“ ‘s ‘Don Draper’ himself (the unfortunately named Jon Hamm), Kathy Bates and a miscast John Cleese. Kid duty is done by Will Smith’s little boy Jaden who made such an impression in last year’s The Pursuit of Happyness.
I had high hopes for this, based on some evocative trailers, but the reality is a disappointment. The plotting is messy and inconclusive and the effects look murky and rushed. The whole thing looks like someone lost confidence half way through shooting, then decided to cut the budget in half and hope for the best.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 17 December, 2008.