Firstly, I need to apologise for the infrequency of updates. Real world work has intervened. The result is that this collection of reviews will be even more cursory than usual.
Ron Howard’s Rush is a great showcase for Chris Hemsworth (Thor) to prove that he has some potential beyond the comic book beefcake. He plays British playboy racing driver James Hunt with a perfect languid English accent and a rock star twinkle just failing to hide his understandable insecurities. Daniel Brühl as his on-track nemesis Niki Lauda also does a creditable job of making an unattractive character appealing. Downsides are that the film is about 20 minutes too long and it’s the first 20 minutes that you could easily lose. Peter Morgan’s script is – unusually for him – very by-the-numbers until the inciting incident occurs after the halfway stage, also kicking Howard’s direction into gear.
Blancanieves was reportedly Roger Ebert’s final favourite film, added to his own festival earlier this year after only a handful of screenings. As usual, Mr. Ebert’s taste did not let him down and the film should win over lovers of classic cinema at least. Much closer to a genuine silent picture than Oscar-winner The Artist’s pastiche, Blancanieves resets the Snow White legend to 1920s Spain with a background of bullfighting and intrigue. It’s luscious to look at and as romantic as any of the great vintage silents that inspired it, although viewers with lower tolerance for melodrama and arch, high intensity performances may struggle to buy in.
Following up on the 2009 surprise hit The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky has offered us another film about people who destroy themselves for our entertainment – this time in the rarefied world of ballet. Tiny Natalie Portman is plucked from the chorus of the fictional but prestigious New York City Ballet for the dream role of the Swan in a hot new production. It’s the chance of a lifetime but her fragile psychology shows through in her performance even though her dancing is technically perfect. Maestro Vincent Cassel tries to reconstruct her – as you would a first year drama school student – while domineering stage mother Barbara Hershey is pushing back in the other direction. Something has to break and it does.
Black Swan is exceptionally well made, beautiful and challenging to watch – and Portman’s performance is nothing short of amazing – but films that aspire to greatness need to be about something more than, you know, what they’re about and once I’d decoded was going on I couldn’t see enough under the surface to justify the hype.
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.
The Film Festival has been a fixture of Wellington’s winter calendar for nearly 40 years and for those of us who organise our lives around glowing rectangles of one kind or another there is no better way to spend a cold and wet afternoon than in the comfy leather chairs at the Embassy, engrossed in a work of art.
Programming a Festival like Wellington may seem easy but I can assure you it’s getting tougher every year. The sheer volume of independent film is growing beyond all reason (I read that there were around 5,000 films submitted to Sundance last year) and attention must be paid to all four corners of the globe nowadays.
The glossy programme (doing double-duty this year as Festival Guide Book and Souvenir Programme) is 90 pages long and I direct you to it forthwith – my role here is, with the help of some previews from the Festival office, to point your attention towards some of the unheralded titles available amongst the hundreds on offer.
The first thing to point out is that, unlike the old days, there is nothing to be gained in trying to guess which films will return for a commercial season. With the loss of the three (otherwise unlamented) Rialto screens in June, there is even less chance of a film coming back than before and the general downturn in attendance this year has made distributors wary. At the moment there are no plans to release The Savages (a well-observed, superbly acted drama with plenty of black humour starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) and even the Jack Black – Michel Gondry comedy Be Kind Rewind is expected to go straight to DVD post-Festival (although strong local sales may provoke a change of mind). Recommendation: if the big screen experience is important to you, don’t wait.
Many films in the Festival are never likely to come back commercially – they may not even have local distribution and thus even a DVD release is unlikely. Of the feature films I got a chance to see before deadline, I was most taken with Silent Light by Mexican Carlos Reygada ( Japón, 2003). In an isolated Mennonite community in Mexico, a husband has to deal with the consequences when he tells his wife of his love for another woman. A fable-like story, exquisitely photographed, with an ending that more than rewards the work you have to put in. I made the mistake of watching it over two nights which reduced its potency by about 75% and I recommend you get to the Embassy screening (if possible) where you can wrap it around you like a blanket.
Director Shane Meadows has been a personal and Festival favourite for nearly 13 years and he showed with last year’s This is England that he is striking a rich vein of form. Somers Town stars that film’s Thomas Turgoose (now 16) as Tomo, on the run from an unmentionable family life in Nottingham. In London, he meets another lonely drifter, Polish immigrant Marek, and they spend the Summer larking about and growing up in the streets around St Pancras. Fully funded by the Eurostar company as an act of pure patronage, perhaps it could be a model for the new KiwiRail company to follow.
In the documentary section (with the immensely strong music department justifiably given its own section of the programme) there is something for everyone. With no less than three Iraq War docos to choose from you could do a lot worse than Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure about the abuse-revealing photographs from Abu Ghraib. No one frames a story better than Morris and, while all most of the talk about the film has been abstract discussion about the nature of photographic reality, it should arouse plenty of righteous anger simply for the horror it portrays.
Crazy Love is another well-constructed tale. With this one it helps to not know too much detail going in, as the reveals are deliciously handled. Suffice to say that love is blind, in more ways than one.
If you wanted to explain to a stranger why New Zealand is known as Godzone, show them Barefoot Cinema, the documentary about beloved cinematographer Alun Bollinger. His idyllic life in Reefton on the West Coast, his career choices (not least to stay in NZ when his contemporaries in the 70s and 80s left for Hollywood) and of course the AlBol-HelBol 40 year love story. There’s a dark shadow that appears but even that is handled by the family with impeccable grace.
Ant Timpson has revived the somewhat moribund Incredibly Strange Film Festival after several years as a watered-down That’s Incredible sub-section. It still sits a little uncomfortably within the whole but the programming is back to it’s best: you’ll find our cover star tucked away there in Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django. Meanwhile King of Kong plays like an amped up version of that crossword documentary last year, this time following vintage video game obsessives and the quest for the world Donkey Kong record. It’s a classic good guy/bad guy set-up and you’ll be as manipulated as any 8‑bit Mario, but it’s a lot of fun.
Finally, tucked away at the Film Archive for two lunchtime screenings is a little gem called The Return by Wellington filmmaker Kathy Dudding. I have just re-watched my two favourite films, London and Robinson in Space by Patrick Keiller, and was delighted to see Wellington get a similar aesthetic treatment – beautifully composed, perfectly balanced, standing images of modern Wellington (the Harbour and Oriental Bay for the most part) with Dudding’s grandmother’s memories of Edwardian and post-WWI Wellington on the soundtrack. Mesmerising and moving.
Notes on screening conditions: All titles except Standard Operating Procedure were previewed on DVD, usually watermarked and timecoded. Standard Operating Procedure was previewed in the Paramount’s Bergman cinema.
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.