I really don’t want much. It’s simple. All I ask is for someone with talent to take some of their life experience and merge it with that talent in the hope that the resulting work of art might help illuminate some aspect of my life. That’s all. And yet it rarely happens. Which means I’m very grateful that with Beginners, Mike Mills has done exactly that and produced a terrific film that is intensely personal – both to him and to me.
Ewan McGregor plays a gloomy Los Angelean illustrator: lonesome, introspective, self-sabotaging; all lessons learnt growing up an only child in a household where his father was a closeted gay and his mother lived a constrained and lonely life of imagination. When she dies of cancer, McGregor’s father (Christopher Plummer) is freed from the bonds of marriage, comes out at the age of 75 and throws himself whole-heartedly into the the LA gay scene – including posting revealing personal ads and starting a relationship with a budding pyrotechnician named Andy (Goran Visnjic). And then he gets cancer.
The Rugby World Cup was supposed to be a boon for the whole economy, the thousands of excited guests soaking up our food, wine, culture and hospitality. Ask any cinema (or theatre) owner what’s really happening and you’ll get the inconvenient truth – the Rugby World Cup itself is soaking up all the attention and most of the dollars. For at least one cinema owner numbers are down 30–40% on this time last year. This shouldn’t be news – even in my day running the Paramount we knew that a Saturday night All Black game meant it was hardly worth opening – a 7.30 kick-off killed your two best two sessions.
Night rugby has been a disaster for everybody except Sky TV and the bars that show it. At least in the days of afternoon games people could watch their team and go out for dinner and a movie afterwards – the interests of whole families could be accommodated. Those days appear to be long gone.
This week we see that New Zealand’s film distributors have thrown in the towel and dumped the year’s worst product in a week no one was going to the pictures anyway. For my sins I sat (mostly) alone in picture theatres all over the city to help you decide how best to (cinematically) escape Dan Carter’s groin.
To be fair to Zookeeper, I was far from alone at the Saturday matinée screening – it seems portly comedian Kevin James (Paul Blart: Mall Cop) is a popular figure here in New Zealand. In The Dilemma he showed that there’s some nascent dramatic talent lurking beneath the lazy choices he’s been making but there’s no sign of it here. James plays a lonely but caring Boston zookeeper who thinks that his smelly occupation is holding him back, romantically-speaking.
This week’s review comes to you from sunny/rainy Auckland where your correspondent is catching up with old friends and enjoying the Auckland cinema scene. The first thing to report is that audience behaviour in the 09 is as selfish and immature as it is at home. Texting and talking is as prevalent at commercial films like The Losers (screening at the otherwise well-appointed Sky City St Lukes) as in Wellington.
The Losers itself would be an easy film to avoid if it wasn’t the only notable Hollywood release of the week. A crack commando squad are hung out to dry by mysterious forces back in Washington. Somehow they have to get back stateside, clear their names and take their revenge on the shadowy mastermind who tries to destroy them. Sound familiar? Yes, it’s The A‑Team and a remake of that comes out in a week or two so you can safely bypass this low-rent version featuring some B‑list stars like Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Watchmen ), Chris Evans (Fantastic 4) and the blandest super villain in history, Jason Patric (Speed 2).
You can forget all talk of an Oscar for Heath Ledger’s Joker. If anyone is going to win an Academy Award for wearing some dodgy make-up in a noisy blockbuster no one is getting in the way of Robert Downey Jr. for Tropic Thunder. Totally believable, every second, as Kirk Lazarus, the Australian method actor (and multi-Oscar winner himself) who undergoes a radical skin re-pigmentation in order to portray tough-as-nails African-American Sgt. Osiris in the eponymous Vietnam epic, Downey Jr’s performance is a thing of wonder: A masterpiece of technique, timing, self-belief and dare I say it, soul. I’m still chuckling days later.
Lazarus is one of a handful of pampered Hollywood stars on location to recreate the last great untold Vietnam story – the suicide-mission rescue of “Four Leaf” Tayback during the legendary “Wet” Offensive of ’69. Under pressure from the studio to get back on schedule (and from handless “Four “Leaf” himself, Nick Nolte, to toughen the pencil-kneck panty-waists up a bit) director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) goes verité. With the help of hidden cameras, special effects and some heavily armed South East Asian drug lords, Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) and Alpa Chino (relative newcomer Brandon T. Jackson) find themselves up to their eyeballs in reality. Comedy reality, which is the best kind. One of my favourite films of the year so far, and I haven’t even mentioned Tom Cruise’s dancing.
Compared to the ferocious energy of Tropic Thunder, Tina Fey’s Baby Mama seems like a comedy from a different era. Fey plays über-clucky Kate Holbrook – successful middle-manager in Steve Martin’s organic produce company. Desperate for progeny (yet strangely single), her T shaped tubes make her a poor bet for IVF and the waiting list for adoption is years long. Surrogacy is her only solution and she barely bats an eyelid at the $100k price tag (she must share John McCain’s accountant). Despite the amount of money changing hands it is the surrogate that interviews the, what’s the word, surrogatee and she successfully passes the aura test posed by white trash “host” Amy Poehler (Blades of Glory).
The lively Poehler kick-starts every scene she is in while better-known stars like Martin, Greg Kinnear and Sigourney Weaver phone in their performances. Meanwhile Fey (“30 Rock”) is likeable enough, although the character seems to be in a world of her own most of the time, and Romany Malco from The Love Guru plays the token black character – a servant. Baby Mama is funnier, the more pregnancy-specific it gets. When it goes generic (speech-impediments, Martin’s new age schtick) it misses even the biggest targets by miles.
Paris is both the subject and the object of Cédric Klapisch’s ensemble drama about a cross-section of modern Parisian society. Romain Duris and Juliette Binoche are siblings, single, on the cusp of 40 and alienated from their parents. Duris is told his heart condition may finish him off sooner rather than later and mopes around the apartment, feeling sorry for himself while Binoche (like women everywhere) puts her own life on hold to care for him and her three children. Meanwhile, hangdog academic Fabrice Luchini (Intimate Strangers) has a crush on his beautiful student Mélanie Laurent, his architect brother is about to become a father but can’t stop crying. At street level, the market stallholders are also looking for love in the big city but have a more direct way of going about finding it.
I’ve made it seem a lot more contrived than it actually plays out. The direction is subtle and the performances are involving. It does suffer from the usual French cinematic philosophy, that working class experience is somehow more real than the self-absorbed bourgeois middle classes, but actually argues its case pretty well.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 28 August, 2008.