Is it too early to suggest that we might be living in a golden age of cinema? Think of the filmmakers working in the commercial realm these days who have distinctive voices, thrilling visual sensibilities, solid intellectual (and often moral) foundations, a passion for combining entertainment with something more — along with an abiding love of cinema in all its strange and wonderful forms.
Jonze made his name with oddball stories like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation and the first thing you notice about his interpretation of the beloved Maurice Sendak children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, is that it simply doesn’t resemble anything else you’ve ever seen. With the help of writer Dave Eggers (the novel “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”, Away We Go) he has used the book as a starting point for a beautiful and sensitive meditation on what it is like to be a child (a boy child specifically).
In 1997 two young hotshots stunned the film world by winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for their first produced script. Since then, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have suffered cruel mutterings ever since: that they couldn’t possibly have written such a good film by themselves and that if they did why haven’t they written anything else? Added to the indignity is the constant rumour that Hollywood script guru William Goldman netted a million dollars for three weeks work punching up Good Will Hunting on condition that he would forever deny it (which he denies).
In the 11 years since that win the career trajectories of Affleck and Damon have been public. Starring roles in blockbuster successes, high-profile romantic liaisons and (in the case of Affleck) a little bit of rehab. But there has been precious little original creative output from either party until the release of Gone Baby Gone, Affleck’s directorial debut (also co-written), which reached Wellington this week.
Directing is a real test of a filmmaker’s chops. Unlike a fudged writing credit you can’t fake being on a set (although a great crew, DP and editor can often cover a multitude of sins) but I’m thrilled to report that Affleck has produced a work of genuine lasting quality.
Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, Gone Baby Gone is set in the same Boston mean streets that Will (from Good Will Hunting) grew up in. If you saw Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River (also from a Lehane story) or Scorsese’s The Departed you’ll be familiar with the geographical territory, but Affleck’s eye is even more highly tuned to the neighborhood than those masters.
Four year old Amanda has been snatched from her home while her young single mother (sensational Amy Ryan) was getting stoned at a bar. The Police led by Morgan Freeman (himself suffering the loss of a child) are struggling to get traction from a community suspicious of uniforms. Young private investigator Patrick (Casey Affleck) and his partner Angie (Michelle Monaghan) are enlisted by the family to try and tease out some clues that would be unavailable to law enforcement.
And that’s when it gets really interesting – because Affleck chooses to downplay the thriller (or procedural) aspects of the piece in favour of character study and the unveiling of a terrible moral dilemma. And its a dilemma that remains perfectly balanced right to the end where, like Bogart’s Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, our honourable private eye is virtually alone, forced to live with the unending pain of doing the right thing.
The production line of asian-horror-remakes is still chugging along. The Eye (remake of a Hong Kong thriller) will be reviewed next week while Shutter (based on a Thai film called Shutter) has already been around a week or so. I find these things to be dreadfully tiresome for the most part, formulaic and predictable. In Shutter a newlywed American couple in Japan (Joshua Jackson and Rachael Taylor) find strange shadows appearing in their holiday snaps. It turns out there’s a spirit following them around, sneaking into their frames, spoiling their compositions. Well, their photography is about to be the least of their worries. Shutter is laughable for the first two-thirds but rescued by a well-manufactured dénouement so I ended up not hating it totally.
Owen Wilson has been in the news more for his mental health issues than his acting in recent months but it is worthwhile to be reminded that he remains one of the most watch-able actors of modern times and the pleasant enough comedy Drillbit Taylor comes to life whenever he is on the screen. He plays the eponymous Taylor, a military deserter and bum who takes on the job of protecting three nerdy kids from high school bullies. The kids are pretty funny too — like the kids from Superbad, only a few years younger.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 2 April, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: This is the first all-Readings edition of the weekly review since it commenced back in October 2006.
It’s Bourne-time again and rogue-agent Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is still trying to find out who he is, who erased his memory and why. A Guardian journalist (Paddy Considine) seems to know something so he takes the Eurostar to London and within 15 minutes of arriving the bodies are piling up.
In a cunning (not to mention potentially confusing) screenwriting coup the first two-thirds of Ultimatum actually takes place ‘before’ the final 15 minutes of Supremacy (the previous sequel) and the two time-lines meet briefly before Ultimatum picks us up and takes us to the final, fascinating, reveal: of a plot (as the saying goes) ripped from the headlines — and from post‑9/11 paranoid, punch-drunk, American foreign policy.
It is, of course, completely brilliant. And loud. And while it’s not quite as perfect as predecessor (and cinema re-definer) Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz is as entertaining a night out as you’ll find anywhere.
Co-creator Simon Pegg plays PC Nicholas Angel, top cop, so good he’s making the rest of the Met look bad. He’s reassigned to the sleepy west country village of Sandford where, apart from a one-swan crime-spree, the peace is never breached. Of course, in a picturesque English village nothing is what it seems and Angel and partner Danny Butterman (Nick Frost) are going to bust this thing wide open, whatever “it” might actually be.
There was a time when a new improv comedy from Christopher Guest and his regular cast of inspired comics would be eagerly awaited but as time goes by the returns are proving meager. For Your Consideration could have been the cream of the crop — after all Hollywood, the subject matter, is closest to the creators real lives and the targets are big and soft. Maybe that’s the problem.
Catherine O’Hara, Harry Shearer and Parker Posey play actors shooting the perfectly awful Home For Purim when an internet gossip starts a rumour that their work might be Oscar material. The sad thing is that that Catherine O’Hara’s performance as tragic Marilyn Hack might actually have been worthy of Oscar consideration if it had been in a better film.
Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie star in The Good Shepherd, a worthy American counterpoint to the classic Le Carré spy stories of the 70’s and 80’s — “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, etc. — where the spies of both sides have more in common with each other than they do with their friends or their families. Despite the formation of the CIA as background, and a couple of telling illustrations of their revolution-toppling, despot-installing methods, it isn’t a particularly political film, but a portrait of a damaged but brilliant young man turning into an even more damaged middle-aged one.
An excellent cast notably Joe Pesci, Michael Gambon and William Hurt are well-served by Robert De Niro’s experienced, actor-friendly direction. He really does know what he’s doing behind the camera as well as in front.
I can recommend The Cave of the Yellow Dog as a restful and benign counterpoint to the angry, noisy, nonsense depicted in so many films these days. In Mongolia, the six ‑year-old daughter of a herder finds a stray dog and wants to keep it but father worries that it will bring bring wolves. It’s a classic story told in a relaxed documentary style; it probably should have been called “Lhassi”.
Science-fiction; fantasy; romance; oil painting: The Fountain is like no film I’ve ever seen before and seems to have been made for those people who thought that the “Star Child” sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey was the best bit. I am not one of those people. Hugh Jackman plays Dr Tom Creo whose wife Izzy (Rachel Weisz) is dying of a brain tumour. Tom will do anything to keep her alive including experimental treatments from the bark of a mysterious South American tree. The Fountain is a film to watch more than listen to — quite beautiful and quite barmy.
The continued existence of the motion picture economy is dependent on the appearance of a Hugh Grant romantic comedy once a year whether he feels like it or not, and in Music and Lyrics he seems to be enjoying himself a little more than usual. Perhaps the sloppiness of Marc Lawrence’s direction meant that he wasn’t required to exert himself beyond a couple of takes. He plays Alex Fletcher, has-been star of 80s band Pop! who gets the chance to renew his lease on fame by writing a song for new sensation Cora. The only problem is he doesn’t write lyrics. Luckily, his plant waterer (Drew Barrymore) wrote turgid poetry at college and the rest is thoroughly predictable. Not a complete waste of time, the faux-80s music is right on the money.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on 21 February, 2007.