Still hovering around some local cinemas – and the longest-delayed of all my outstanding reviews – Still Mine is a surprisingly effective Canadian drama about an elderly man (James Cromwell, 73 but playing a fit 89) determined to build a new house for his wife (Geneviéve Bujold) before her memory deserts her completely. Cromwell gives his character a softness which belies the usual ornery old dude clichés, even if his stubborn refusal to submit to the building code is the device on which the story hinges. Contains lots of shots of Cromwell’s heroic profile staring off into the New Brunswick distance.
Older people are, paradoxically, the only growing segment of the film audience in New Zealand so there’s often high quality fare around the tempt them. One of the best is the documentary Ping Pong, about competitors (genuine competitors at that) in the World Over 80s Table Tennis Championship in Inner Mongolia. Like any good documentary it assembles a great cast of characters and like all good sports movies it makes full use of the built-in drama of a knock-out tournament. Not just about the restorative power of exercise, it’s also about friendship and adventure. Inspiring, so help me.
There are two mainstream comic book publishing houses, DC and Marvel, and choosing between them as a kid was a bit like choosing between The Beatles and the Stones. They had different styles and sensibilities (and philosophies) and after a little bit of experimentation you could find a fit with one or the other.
DC had Superman and Batman – big, bold and (dare I say it) one-dimensional characters with limited or opaque inner lives. When Stan Lee created Spider-Man, a teenage photographer with powers he neither asked for nor appreciated, he created a soap opera – a soap opera with aspirations to high art. As you might be able to tell, I was a Marvel kid.
I think we can safely call a halt to these semi-annual Hulk movies now – the new one is good enough that we can all move on (Ant-Man is evidently next). The Incredible Hulk is Marvel’s attempt to wrestle back the franchise that got away from them under Ang Lee in 2003 and eventually re-unify the Marvel universe under the suave, unstoppable box office force of Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man. To retrieve The Hulk, Marvel cast Hollywood’s weediest leading man, Edward Norton (Fight Club), not realising that Norton also has a reputation as a bit of a meddler who then re-wrote the script and sat in on the editing.
The result, as you might expect, is a bit of a noisy mess, but far from disastrous. After a splendidly condensed opening title sequence which takes us through the back-story of the original experiments that Gamma-ized poor Bruce Banner, we meet him on the run in Brazil, labouring in a bottling plant, taking anger management classes and collaborating online with a mysterious scientist who may hold the key to a cure. Unfortunately for him, the General (a suitably comic-book performance by William Hurt) arrives with a squad to take him home. This makes him angry, of course, and unleashes the green beast within.
If anything, it is more respectful of the TV series than the comic book, featuring cameos from original Hulk Lou Ferrigno and a clunky posthumous cameo from TV Banner Bill Bixby. In fact, looking back on it the film spends more time honouring the past than it does driving into the future, often falling prey to cutesy touches like having Norton Anti-Virus fire up when Banner logs on to a computer. Chief Villain Tim Roth looks like Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, which makes his character name, The Abomination, perfectly apt.
Paul Haggis created the Oscar-winning Crash back in 2004 and, after helping reinvent Bond in Casino Royale, has gone back to the political well with the heartfelt In the Valley of Elah, starring Tommy Lee Jones. Jones plays former Army investigator Hank Deerfield. His son has just returned from Iraq but immediately gone AWOL so Hank travels across Texas to find him. What he discovers shakes his faith in his country and the military and (I’m guessing) is supposed to have some metaphoric weight about the state of the nation and the world and it probably does. I was one of many who found Crash to be appalling, un-watchable, rubbish but Elah (perhaps because it doesn’t try and do so much) is better.
While Haggis wears his heart on his sleeve, what he really needs is a copy editor on his shoulder. Someone needs to tell him that when you cast someone as soulful as Tommy Lee Jones you can just let him tell the audience what is going on with his eyes – you don’t then have to then verbalise it in the next shot. Probably an easy mistake to make when you are a writer first and a director second…
If Haggis needs a copy editor then M. Night Shyamalan needs a security guard on the door of his office, holding the keys to his typewriter. The Happening is an eco-thriller about a mysterious “event” that causes people across the North East of America to lose their minds and then do away with themselves. Among those caught up in the mess is high school science teacher Mark Wahlberg who thinks the mysterious disappearance of America’s bee population might have something to do with it.
Shyamalan has obvious talent as a director: he has an eye for an arresting image and has seen enough Hitchcock to construct effective set-pieces but he can’t write dialogue that human beings can actually say which continually drops the audience out of the moment. Luckily, whenever I lost connection to the story, there was Zooey Deschanel (as Wahlberg’s wife), whose electric blue eyes should be categorised as an alternative fuel source.
Outsourced is returning to cinemas after a brief turn at the World Cinema Showcase. It’s a beguiling tale of a Seattle call centre manager (Josh Hamilton) who has to go to India to train his replacement when the novelty company he works for relocates “fulfilment” to Gwaripur. The usual cross-cultural misunderstandings occur but the characters all grow on you, much like India grows on our hero.
Finally, legendary social commentator Adam Sandler takes on another pressing political issue (after gay marriage in I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry) and helps solve the conflict in the Middle East with You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, a hit and miss comedy that is mostly hit for a change. Sandler is the Zohan, number one Israeli counter-terrorist operative, who is tired of the endless conflict and yearns to emulate his hero (Paul Mitchell), cut hair in New York and make everything “silky smooth”. So he fakes his own death and smuggles his way in to America where the only job he can get is in a Palestinian salon. His unorthodox methods with the ladies soon make him very popular indeed but the conflict is never far away.
There are plenty of jokes per minute and the relentless teasing of Israelis for their love of fizzy drinks, hummus, disco and hacky-sack is pretty entertaining.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 18 June 2008.
Nature of conflict: Outsourced is distributed in New Zealand by Arkles Entertainment who I do a little work for now and then.