As I sit here typing, I can hear the sounds of a Wellington summer all around me — the rain pouring on to the deck outside and the wind howling through the trees. Is this why local film distributors release so much product over the Christmas/New Year period? Perhaps it’s just climate and nothing to do with the Oscars at all? Anyhow, here’s a quick summary of what’s been dished out at local cinemas in descending order of greatness.
First up, Ang Lee’s glowing 3D adaptation of Yann Martell’s Life of Pi, storming the local box offices and deservedly so. Ravishing to look at — and making profound rather than novelty use of the extra depth available — Lee’s film manages to distil the essence of the book’s message even if the ambiguous ending proves less satisfying cinematically than literarily. Dreamy. I was particularly taken by the conscious recreation of the book’s original cover in one scene, even to the extent of changing the film’s aspect ratio for that single shot.
I’ve been watching reactions to other people’s “Best of 2011” with interest. It’s fascinating to see online commentors insist that films they have seen are so much better than films that they haven’t. Even though I do, in fact, watch everything I’m not going to pretend that this list is definitive — except to say that it gets a lot closer than most…
I also don’t believe in the arbitrariness of “Top Tens”. I have my own entirely arbitrary scale: Keepers, Renters and Respecters.
Keepers are the films that I loved so much I want to own them — films that make me feel better just having them in the house. The first film I adored this year was slushy Disney horse racing story Secretariat. It should have been everything I hate — manipulative, worthy, a faith-based subtext — and yet I cried like a baby — expert button-pushing from director Randall Wallace. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was my favourite blockbuster. Superb direction by Rupert Wyatt overcame the flaws (ahem, James Franco, ahem) and it carefully walked the tightrope of both respect for its predecessors and kicking off something new.
Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is my favourite film of the year by a long stretch. A second viewing allowed me to stop thinking about it and just feel it, meaning that I got closer than ever before to the soul of a film artist. Profound in the way that only the greatest works of art are. Tusi Tamasese announced himself with one of the most mature and considered debuts I’ve ever seen — The Orator placed us deeply inside a culture in a way that was both respectful and challenging of it. That film’s journey hasn’t finished yet.
Genius filmmaker Mike Leigh has been on a bit of an up and down streak in recent years. 2002’s All or Nothing was wonderful, Vera Drake (2004) I found frustratingly unwatchable and, most recently, Happy-Go-Lucky seemed too thin — beneath his significant talents — and yet, despite not liking it very much, I find myself thinking about Happy-Go-Lucky quite often. And that’s Leigh’s skill — he gets under your skin even when you resist.
Another Year is his latest film and it’s terribly good. It’s Secrets and Lies good, that good, despite having no plot to speak of. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen (Leigh regulars) play Tom and Gerri, a happily married couple who seem to be surrounded by people who simply aren’t as good at coping with life — Lesley Manville’s Mary, a highly strung, alcoholic, work colleague of Sheen’s who turns up to embarrass herself in their kitchen periodically; Tom’s old university buddy Ken played by Peter Wight (overweight, depressed, lonely, also alcoholic); Tom’s taciturn widower brother Ronnie (David Bradley). They all drift into and out of Tom and Gerri’s welcoming suburban kitchen while tea is made and drunk and banalities are spoken.
Of all directors currently working in the Hollywood mainstream Michael Mann is arguably the greatest stylist. No one at the multiplex has more control of the pure aesthetics of filmmaking, from colour balance and composition through editing and sound, Mann’s films (from Thief in 1981 to the misguided reworking of Miami Vice in 2006) have had a European visual sensibility while remaining heavily embedded in the seamy world of crime and punishment.
Now Mann has turned back the clock and made a period crime film, set during the last great depression. Based on the true story of the legendary bank robber John Dillinger, whose gang cut a swathe across the Midwest in 1933 and 1934, Mann’s Public Enemies is a stylish and superbly crafted tale of a doomed hero pursued by a dogged lawman. Dillinger is portrayed by Johnny Depp with his usual swagger and his nemesis is the now sadly ubiquitous Christian Bale.
Clint Eastwood has been on our screens for over 50 years and at 78 years old he has decided to call it a day and his valedictory performance in Gran Torino is completely worthy of the man. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a working class widower living on a suburban Detroit street, one of the few original residents still around as the neighbourhood fills up with Hmong immigrants. In a gang initiation his teenage neighbour Thao tries to steal Walt’s beloved 1972 Gran Torino (a car he helped build on the Ford assembly line) and, as penance, the kid is forced to work for Walt over the summer. They get to know each other — and the threat from the Hmong gang-bangers who now have an axe to grind with Walt as well as Thao and his family.
Never having seen an episode of Sex and the City on television, I’ll have to leave it to others to place it in context. From what I can gather, though, it appears to be about four women in Manhattan, not too bright, not too nice and not too deep, who are looking for love, success and shoes. The central figure in the group is Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) whose on-again, off-again relationship with Mr Big (Chris Noth) is about to become very much “on” with a huge society wedding and a penthouse 5th Avenue apartment with a closet bigger than the apartment building I live in. Amazingly, it is the closet that causes the most excitement, even when empty.
Meanwhile, Charlotte (Kristin Davis) is blissfully happy with her husband and adopted daughter Lily; Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) is somewhat less than happy to find out that her husband (David Eigenberg) has cheated on her and sex kitten Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is finding life in the shadow of a handsome daytime soap star to be less than fulfilling.
It all comes to a head at the wedding but not before (as well as during and after) we are forced to listen to many, many long conversations mostly about events we have just seen.
Untraceable is a perfectly serviceable thriller set in rainy Portland. Diane Lane is a widow working the FBI cyber-crime night-shift who discovers a crazed loon stringing up victims in front of a webcam. The more eyeballs he receives the faster his victim dies making everyone complicit in the eventual murder. Director Gregory Hoblit has an unparalelled tv background (“Hill Street Blues”, anyone?) and also directed the tight mind-games thriller Fracture last year and Untraceable is better than it sounds, effective and not nearly as exploitative as the trailer led one to believe.
Just like the U2 concert movie earlier this year, most of the people at the front of the Rolling Stones 2006 Beacon Theatre show (recorded for posterity by Martin Scorsese as Shine a Light) watched it via the screens on their cellphones. Heavens, people! Stop trying to record the life going on in front of you and just get in there and live it! (Written from the back row of a darkened cinema on a sunny day). Shine a Light shows the Stones off superbly — the sound is magnificent and the performance (from Jagger in particular) is stunning. Not enough Charlie Watts for my liking but that’s a minor quibble.
It doesn’t take long to establish why the latest George Clooney romantic-comedy has been buried either at sessions no one can get to or cinemas no one wants to visit. Leatherheads is an indulgent romp, feeding off Clooney’s nostalgia for old-time football and classic movies — a limited market. Set in 1925 at the birth of professional football, Clooney plays “Dodge” Connelly, an ageing player trying to keep his athletic dreams alive via the unprepossessing Duluth Bulldogs. As a last gasp attempt to get crowds to pro games he signs college star and war hero Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) to an exorbitant game by game contract and inadvertently changes the sport forever. He also gets hard-boiled newspaper-woman Lexie Littleton (a much less annoying than usual Renée Zellweger) who is trying to uncover the truth about Rutherford’s war record. Vaguely reminiscent of fast-paced verbal comedies like His Girl Friday and Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (and even The Sting), the best thing about Leatherheads is Randy Newman’s wonderful score.
Every great artist has major works and minor works. For Prince, for example, Sign O’ The Times is a major work and Alphabet StreetLovesexy isn’t. Mike Leigh’s major works include Naked, Secrets and Lies and All or Nothing and his minor list features Topsy-Turvy and now Happy-Go-Lucky, about primary school teacher Poppy (Sally Hawkins) and her family and friends. There’s not much story and not much development, but I think the reason why Happy-Go-Lucky fails is the lack of empathy for the characters (possibly caused by Leigh not having actors like Brenda Blethyn and Timothy Spall to make the emotional connections for him).
The second half of my contemporary working class London double-feature was Brick Lane, based on a novel I’ve actually read. On the death of her mother, Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee) is married off to priggish Karim (Christopher Simpson) in London where a life of grimy council flats and racist neighbours awaits. Clumsily condensed and fussily directed, Brick Lane never quite overcomes it’s own clichés.
Totally cliché-free and like nothing you have ever seen, Adam’s Apples is a very odd black comic fable about a white supremacist, Adam, sent to a remote country church to see out his parole period. There he meets a gaggle of eccentric, damaged or just plain barking characters, not least Ivan the priest (Mads Mikkelsen) who turns the other cheek so often it might as well be inside out. Full of surprises.
Finally, a couple of disposable (though probably not biodegradable) entertainments for the yoof: 21 is based on a true story about MIT students who use their phenomenal abilities at, er, counting to cheat the blackjack tables in Vegas. MIT is in Massachusetts and central character Ben (Across The Universe’s Jim Sturgess) is a fatherless scholarship boy so the film could have been called Good Will Counting. If it had any heart or soul or wit. 21 also features Kate Bosworth and Kevin Spacey in their thirdfilm together in less than four years.
And Prom Night is a run-of-the-mill slasher film featuring a high school science teacher with an infatuation for Brittany Snow (Hairspray). He kills all her family and then, three years later, escapes from detention to wreck her Prom party. Totally forgettable.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 11 June, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: All unremarkable screenings at cinemas notable for their attention to screening quality except for Adam’s Apples which is pretty scratchy and has a damaged soundtrack (Paramount) and Shine a Light whichlooked and sounded simply superb at the Embassy.