Danny Boyle is one of my favourite directors. From Shallow Grave in 1994 to 127 Hours in 2010, his work has stimulated and inspired me. I re-watched Trainspotting the other day and it still made everything else I saw that week seem old-fashioned. Everything, that is, except Trance which just happens to be Boyle’s new film, a return to cinemas after directing the biggest theatre show of all time – the Olympic Games opening ceremony which was seen by an audience of – ooh – about 900 million people.
Trance returns Boyle to his $20m budget comfort zone and his new lightweight digital filmmaking style. It also reunites him with screenwriter John Hodge (Trainspotting) so it should be all systems go, yes?
Not quite. In Trance, James McAvoy plays an art expert with a problem. Instead of helping a gang of thugs steal a very expensive painting from his auction house he actually tries to steal it himself, getting a whack on the head for his trouble. Now he can’t remember where he left the painting and the gang are trying everything from fingernail-pulling to hypnotherapy to help him remember where it is.
Readers of last week’s column will know that I am currently overseas on a quest, a mission – a pursuit if you prefer – hoping to discover a new kind of cinema. After a week at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado I am now in New York and have got a clearer idea of what that vision should look like.
I think I’ll name this new cinema goodcinema and it’s main characteristic will be the absence of films like Hit and Run and The Watch, two of this week’s new releases. Is it possible to redefine rubbish like this out of existence?
The first is a Dax Shepard vanity project about a man choosing to give up his place in a dull witness protection programme so that his girlfriend (Kristen Bell) can get a job in the big city. In the space of a single day his previous identity as a top getaway driver is revealed to her and his new identity as a dreary small-town non-entity is revealed to the dimwitted but single-minded hoods who he ratted out.
To really understand a country you have to go and live there – embed yourself with the people, soak up the culture. If you don’t have the time or inclination for that then the next best thing to is to get stuck in to their commercial cinema. Not the stuff that makes it into major international film festivals like Berlin and Venice, not the stuff that gets nominated for foreign language Academy Awards, but the films that are made to excite and please a local audience. That’s what festivals like Reel Brazil are all about – a week-long portrait of a country via its cinema.
In the late 60s Brazil had a kind of Brazilian Idol television pop competition where brave young artists performed their top song in front of a live audience baying for blood as if they were watching Christians versus lions. But in A Night in 67 we see that year’s competition rise above the boos and jeers to open a new chapter in Brazilian pop music – legendary names like Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso compete to win over the tough crowd and in the process launch massive international careers.
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).
After nearly three and a half years of producing this cinemagoers’ consumer guide, perhaps its time for a statement of intent. A manifesto, if you will. Something to place these musings in perspective as you skim through them over Morning Tea.
I try and find something good and interesting in everything I see, and I see pretty much everything. Most films have an audience of some description waiting for them somewhere, and that audience may be you, so I try and outline what might appeal (along with what might not) so that you can make an informed choice.
Plus, I have some sympathy for the little battler and will often try and draw your attention in that direction (Don’t forget Two Lovers, folks) and I try and watch films not meant for me (kids flicks, etc) with half an eye on how the rest of the audience is reacting.
It is extremely rare, as regular readers will know, for me to warn you off a film entirely, or indeed (in the case of our first film this week) suggest that its creators should be harshly punished for its perpetration. The films that are really sand under my foreskin are those that only exist to pad a resumé and a bank balance, cynical attempts to separate us from our money, marketing campaigns crudely disguised as art.
Showcasing the Taranaki landscape as well as the people, Show of Hands has an ambition as small as the town but, sadly, doesn’t bear up under too much scrutiny. A struggling car yard owner (StevenStephen Lovatt) runs a hands-on-the-car promotion as a last ditch attempt to save his business and a handily representative cross-section of New Zealand society turns out to have a go.
The three main contenders are Melanie Lynskey’s single-mum (who needs the car to ferry her wheelchair-bound daughter about); Matt Whelan’s young trustafarian and Craig Hall’s cold-fish businessman who may or may not need the dough to solve his business problems or may or may not just be an ultra-competitive egotistical jerk. The whole film suffers from a similar lack of clarity which makes suspending disbelief a struggle. The acting is fine however and Whelan in particular is excellent – one for the future there.
Cursed with a not-very-promising title, and a high concept premise (obnoxious dentist dies for seven minutes on an operating table and wakes up with the ability to see the ghosts of Manhattan), David Koepp’s Ghost Town turns out to be one of the mainstream pleasures of the year. I’m going to assume that every Hollywood rom-com with an English lead was written for Hugh Grant, but we can be grateful that he has all-but retired as it gives Ricky Gervais a meaty role which he grabs with both hands. Gervais may not have much range as an actor, but he does have depth and I found myself being unaccountably moved by a film that always delivers a little more than it says on the tin.
If the remarkable success of the 48 Hour Film Competition has proved anything in recent years it is that making films is now as much of a community experience as watching them and it’s that same hand-made, JFDI, aesthetic that Michel Gondry celebrates in the very special Be Kind Rewind.
While minding doddery Danny Glover’s ramshackle New Jersey video (and thrift) store, Mos Def discovers that all the precious VHS tapes have been erased by magnetic doofuss Jack Black. To save the business our heroes re-make the contents of the store using only a handycam and their ingenuity, eventually enlisting the whole town. I loved Be Kind Rewind and you’ll be honouring the spirit of the film if you see it at a theatre with a bunch of strangers.
Mirrors is yet another re-make of an Asian horror flick and there ain’t much water left in that particular well. Kiefer Sutherland plays a troubled NY ex-cop who takes a security guard job at an abandoned department store (Romanian and Hungarian studios plus a tiny bit of stock footage stand in for Manhattan). On his first night on the job the mirrors start to freak him out and two hours of excruciating exposition follow.
Also shot on a European sound stage, though a second unit did make it through JFK to shoot some scenery, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People is an amiable little romp starring Simon Pegg as a try-hard English journalist trying to make it as a celebrity writer on a top New York magazine. Pompous yet insecure, Pegg’s Sidney Young (loosely based on author Toby Young whose book was itself loosely based on his own short Manhattan career) cuts a slapstick swathe through high society. Pegg is ok (but he’s no Ricky Gervais, see above) but Megan Fox as movie star Sophie has the worst skin I’ve ever seen on a Hollywood leading actress.
Writer-Director Guy Ritchie’s dreadful faux-cockney purple prose has been drooled all over the interminable RocknRolla, a boysie bit of rough and tumble that’s the cinematic equivalent of someone grabbing you around the neck and rubbing their knuckles into your skull. The sloppy plot involves a Russian oligarch’s lucky painting, an old school East End gangster on the way out, a rock star faking his own death and a big black ticket tout with a taste for Jane Austen.
Ritchie does have an eye for young talent (Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels made Jason Statham a star): look out for Toby Kebbell (the junkie rock star Johnny Quid) and Tom Hardy (Handsome Bob), just don’t look out for them in this.
Finally, there’s not many films that wouldn’t be improved with the addition of the wonderful Jim Broadbent, and he really shines in And When Did You Last See Your Father?, a worthy brit-lit adaptation that also stars Colin Firth. Broadbent plays the father in question, a jovial egotist who doesn’t realise that his over-abundant joie-de-vivre is crushing the spirits of those around him. Firth is poet Blake Morrison, coming to terms with his father’s terminal illness with the help of plenty of flashbacks to his 60s childhood. Director Anand Tucker builds his case carefully until a splendidly moving finale draws a line under a very satisfying film.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 19 November, 2008.
Nature of conflict: I produced a couple of plays for Anthony McCarten back in the early 90s – “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and the revival of “Yellow Canary Mazurka”.
Notes on screening conditions: Ghost Town, How to lose Friends…, RocknRolla and Mirrors were all at Readings public sessions (all fine except How to Lose Friends… was slightly out of frame meaning some of the titles spilled on to the masking); Be Kind, Rewind was at the Paramount and the first half was 20% out of focus and the whole film was about 20% too quiet; Show of Hands was a late night watermarked DVD from Rialto Entertainment and And When Did You Last See Your Father? was at the Embassy during the Film Festival back in July.