“My drumming sucks” — Richard Jenkins in The Visitor
Best known to New Zealand audiences as the deceased patriarch of the Fisher family in television’s “Six Feet Under”, Richard Jenkins has had a steady career in movies over the last 25 years, often in unsung supporting roles, but this year he has really left a mark.
Speaking to the Capital Times from his home in Rhode Island, Jenkins gave thanks to Thomas McCarthy, creator of 2004’s sleeper hit The Station Agent, for having faith in him despite his lack of marquee presence. “He asked me to read the script and I hadn’t read anything I liked more. But I told him, nobody’s going to give you the money with me in it!” But McCarthy persevered, even when one executive producer suggested just weeks before shooting that Morgan Freeman might be a more commercial choice.
2008 has been a great year for Jenkins. In the sophomoric buddy comedy Step Brothers he got to improvise scenes about dinosaurs with Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly; he was reunited with The Coen Brothers for Burn After Reading (in a part that was written for him); and in the sensitive indie he shines as a widowed academic brought back from a boundless depression by a chance New York connection with two illegal immigrants.
But carrying a film on his shoulders was a new experience. “I always wondered what it would be like, you know? Could I do it? But most of all, I didn’t want to let Tom down.” He needn’t have worried, as his performance anchors a typically humane McCarthy film about strangers thrown together and learning to appreciate and then love each other.
Jenkins continues to live in tiny Rhode Island where he moved after successfully auditioning for the Trinity Rep theatre company in Providence in 1970. He happily performed and directed there for 14 years, even spending four years as acting Artistic Director just as his film career was taking off.
The movie work has been so regular he hasn’t been on a stage since 1985 but he never anticipated a film career. ”I’d always loved film but frankly, it was easier to go the the moon,” he laughs. “A career is something you look back on rather than something you plan”.
Now he says he enjoys watching theatre more than he ever did (when he was acting in it) and tries to catch whatever he can, wherever he may be filming.
At the rate that Jenkins makes films (there are another four in the can for release next year), the law of averages suggests he will be shooting in Wellington before too long and he knows the talent we have to offer, describing working with Niki (Whale Rider) Caro on North Country as his best movie-making experience ever.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 3 December, 2008.
Back in the 70s, when I was about 8 years old, I watched a film on TV called Silent Running. In it Bruce Dern and three little robots tended the remains of Earth’s plant life on a giant greenhouse spaceship floating somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. I cried so much at the shocking ending (which had lonely robot Dewey, tending the forest with a battered watering can while the last of Earth’s flora drifted toward the edge of the solar system) that I don’t think I’ve ever been the same again. Last year, I rented the DVD to see if it had the same effect more than 30 years later and, sure enough, I dissolved on cue. Remarkable.
Pixar’s new animated triumph WALL•E owes a great deal to Silent Running, not least it’s dystopic view of human-planet interaction but also the faith in the healing power of anthropomorphic cuboid robots. WALL•E is the last functioning maintenance robot on an abandoned Earth, tidying up the enormous mountains of garbage left behind 700 years previously by the cowardly human population who ran for the stars. Lonely, without really knowing what lonely means, our hero meets EVE, a brilliant (as in shiny) search robot looking for signs of organic life. When she discovers some, and leaves to report back, WALL•E hitches a ride and ultimately finds himself saving civilisation.
It was perhaps a little too long for the restless pre-schoolers I shared a screening with, but for anyone and everyone else I whole-heartedly recommend it. And it won’t make you cry so much you throw up.
Regular readers will know that I have been quite the cheerleader for the new digital 3D technology (the U2 concert was stunning). Sadly, the first “live action” film to be produced using the process, Journey to the Centre of the Earth 3D, is still more of a side-show stunt than a test of the artistic potential of the technology. Brendan Fraser plays a geologist whose brother was lost on an exploration in some Icelandic caves and when he discovers secret coded notes in his brother’s dog-eared copy of the Jules Verne book, he decides to recreate the expedition, taking his nephew (plus last week’s CT cover girl Anita Briem) along for the ride.
Alister Barry is one of Wellington’s living treasures. His meticulously researched documentaries (including Someone Else’s Country and In a Land of Plenty) have successfully shone a light on the political and economic changes in New Zealand since the ‘new right’ transformation of the mid-80s in a way that nobody in the mainstream media has even attempted. His new film is based on Nicky Hager’s explosive exposé of shoddy National Party campaigning, The Hollow Men, and it’s interesting to me that the real-life footage of Don Brash presents a considerably less sympathetic portrait of the man than Stephen Papps’ excellent performance in the stage version at BATS. The leaked emails from Hager’s book revealed so many shenanigans that it’s hard to keep the story straight but Barry does a good job of emphasising that it is essentially the same team running National this time around.
I was lucky enough to preview the gorgeous BBC nature documentary, Earth, at the Embassy during the Festival and I’m pleased to see it return there for a short season. Unlike the tedious and repetitive ice doco The White Planet, this film uses the whole planet as a canvas for some marvellous images and, like WALL•E, the message is that we are stuffing it up at an alarming rate. Only the cutest animals and most colourful plants got through the auditions and Patrick Stewart plays the Morgan Freeman part as narrator.
After dismal experiences with Will Ferrell’s recent ice-skating and basketball films I wasn’t looking forward to Step Brothers, a low brow reunitement (new word!) with Talladega Nights co-star John C. Reilly, but blow me down I really enjoyed it! Ferrell and Reilly play two 40-year-old men, living at home, whose solo parents meet and marry each other, making them, you guessed it Step Brothers. It’s a 90 minute riff on one joke but you have to admire their total commitment to it.
Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging was made for teenage girls and I (despite my best efforts) am not one but, even though I lack the required cultural filters, I can’t understand why teenage girls would want to be portrayed as such shallow, tedious, screeching harpies. Boys, make-up, boys, the right kind of underwear, boys again. If these are our future leaders then I despair. Crikey, was Helen Clark like this when she was 14?
Profound, sensitive, emotionally arduous and perfectly structured, 4 Months follows a day in the life of student Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) as she selflessly tries to organise an abortion for her light headed friend Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), while fending off the attentions of family and boyfriend. As close to perfect as makes no difference.
Printed (for the most part) in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 24 September, 2008. Except for Earth, Step Brothers, Angus, Thongs, etc. and 4 Months which were cut for space.
From the first bars of John Williams’ famous fanfare, played on a 1000 kazoos, you know The Clone Wars is going to be a cheap and cheerful, Saturday morning cartoon level, rip-off of the Star Wars universe and so it proves. Without participation of any of the original stars (except for game old Chris Lee as Dooku) and George Lucas’ involvement limited to insisting that one character has the voice of Truman Capote, a minor episode gets spun out well beyond it’s ability to engage and entertain but it is quite amusing to be reminded that all the clones look like Tem Morrison. The tone is basically “All Jar-Jar, all the time” but even your average eight year old might wonder why it has to be so repetitive.
While it shouldn’t be any great surprise to be intellectually insulted by The Clone Wars, I was amazed to actually be personally insulted by the creators of comic-book action flick Wanted, during the summing-up voice-over at the end. Gentlemen, I am far from pathetic and the opposite of ordinary and if your idea of a valid personal philosophy is to murder strangers because a magic loom told you to, then I’m pretty happy here on my side of that fence. Director Timur Bekmambetov proved with Night Watch and Day Watch that he has a thrilling personal style but not much in the way of storytelling ability which he confirms with his first Hollywood studio production. Mr Tumnus, James McAvoy, plays nerdy accounts clerk Wesley who finds out he is the son and heir of the world’s best assassin. Aided by Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman he learns to shoot round corners and discover an objectivist sense of purpose that puts his own personal freedom and destiny above the lives of (for example) hundreds of innocent people on a train. Vile.
Harry Houdini was one of the 20th century’s legendary entertainers and in Death Defying ActsGuy Pearce renders him completely without charisma which is a remarkable achievement. The first great sceptic, Houdini offers $10,000 to anyone who can tell him his beloved mother’s final words. Stage mind-reader Catherine Zeta Jones sees a way out of poverty but finds herself falling in love instead. The lack of electricity (real or imagined) between the two leads hampers things somewhat but the camera loves Saoirse Ronan (Atonement and the forthcoming Lovely Bones) so it isn’t a complete waste of time.
While China is front and centre of world attention at the moment, the arrival in cinemas of Yung Chang’s excellent documentary Up the Yangtze couldn’t be better timed. Taking us on a luxury cruise up a Yangtze river being slowly transformed by the epic (Mao-inspired) Three Gorges Dam project, the film manages to get more of China into it’s cleverly layered 90 minutes than seems possible. Teenage Yu dreams of going to University and becoming an engineer but her parents are illiterate and dirt poor and have missed out on the compensation that would move them from their shack beside the river. So, against her will, she is sent to work on the cruise ship where she is given the English name Candy and instructed in the ways of modern domestic service. Meanwhile, her parents struggle to find a new place to live and the river inexorably rises.
When discussing global warming and carbon emissions, we are often told that China opens a new coal powered power station every week which is evidently a bad thing. But, ironically, when they build a renewable hydro-electric scheme the West gets pretty snooty about that too. The pressures on China from all directions are keenly felt in this film, which will tell you more about that part of the world than three weeks of Olympic Games.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 20 August, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: Star Wars: The Clone Wars was viewed at one of those excruciating radio station previews on Wednesday, 13 August (Readings). Wanted and Death Defying Acts were at Empire public screenings and Up the Yangtze was a preview screener DVD. I wish I had seen it at the Festival, though. I’m sure it would have looked very fine at the Embassy.
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.
The trailer for The Bucket List has been playing for weeks now, inducing groans at every appearance. By collecting a series of Jack Nicholson’s now trademark Jack-isms plus Morgan Freeman’s regular, twinkly, wise old man schtick and then sprinkled with plenty of schmaltz, the trailer made me actively want to avoid a film that looked like a lame set of saccharine clichés and tired ham acting – cynical Hollywood at its worst.
I am pleased to report, however, that The Bucket List is a much more enjoyable film than I was expecting. There is some excellent work from Nicholson and Freeman who are well coached by director Rob Reiner, with the help of a script by Justin Zackham that has several decent moments. Nicholson plays misanthropic health tycoon Edward Cole who is diagnosed with brain cancer and forced, due to his own tight-fisted policies, to share a room with car mechanic and lung cancer patient Freeman. When he discovers Freeman has a wish-list of things to do before he dies, he takes it upon himself to make them come true using the billions he has accumulated in the corrupt American health care system.
No Country for Old Men is essential cinema in two senses of the word. First and foremost you must see it, probably more than once. But it is also cinema reduced to its essence. Everything contributes: Cormac McCarthy’s respectfully adapted original novel; beautifully composed images superbly photographed by Roger Deakins (the only creative on the project not named Coen); editing that could be a film school in a box. The standard musical soundtrack is replaced by the music of the everyday: footsteps, coffee pots, car engines, gun fire.
A hunter (Josh Brolin) stumbles across a wilderness drug deal gone wrong: many corpses, a flatbed full of drugs and briefcase full of money. He takes the money hoping to start a new life away from the West Texas trailer park he inhabits with Trainspotting’s Kelly MacDonald. But instead of a winning lottery ticket he has unleashed the epitome of cinema badass-ery: Javier Bardem as an angel of vengeance determined to retrieve the cash by any means necessary.
All the performances are wonderful but the heart of the film is Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Ed Bell. Always (aggravatingly) a couple of steps behind he is a good man ill-at-ease with the sheer, inexplicable, evil he is confronted with. A masterpiece.
Josh Hartnett plays another small town sheriff, out-gunned and out-matched, in 30 Days of Night. He runs Barrow, the northern-most town in Alaska, so far north that one month of the year is spent in darkness. This is the perfect setup for a smart vampire to take advantage of: 30 days of feeding with no enforced hibernation and a bunch of unsavoury characters (well-led by Danny Huston) certainly go to town. Entertaining and stylish, 30 Days goes about its work (within its genre limitations) respectably enough.
I’m beginning to think that George Clooney is so good that his presence has actually made some films seem much better than they actually are: Syriana would be an example. This theory comes in to focus when discussing Michael Clayton, another Oscar contender from first-time director Tony Gilroy. Clooney plays the eponymous legal fixer, a middle-aged man losing his bearings: his moral compass is as adrift as the malfunctioning satnav in his Merc. He is trying to fix a rapidly unravelling case defending a dodgy agri-chemical company when he realises that he is probably on the wrong side but his tenuous personal situation doesn’t give him the freedom to do the right thing. He is conflicted, in other words, and Clooney plays that conflict superbly. But, while George is acting his heart out, the rest of the film doesn’t quite measure up. Performances misstep and the plot weighs the themes down more heavily than it needs to. A good film but not a great one.
Leonardo DiCaprio for the Nobel Peace Prize? Following in the footsteps of Al Gore’s activist phenomenon An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, DiCaprio stakes his own claim with a documentary about environmental destruction and the urgent need for change: The 11th Hour. Sadly for the earnest DiCaprio, there’s nothing here we haven’t seen or heard before and (despite his star power) he is an unconvincing presenter. Perhaps he should have stayed behind the camera and paid Morgan Freeman to front it — he is God after all.
Talk to Me is an entertaining and moving little film, destined to be overwhelmed by the heavyweight Oscar contenders opening all around it. Oblivion wouldn’t be a fair outcome though and if you find yourself with the time and inclination to give it a try you won’t be disappointed. Always reliable Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda) plays real-life Washington DC radio star and activist Ralph Waldo “Petey” Green and the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofer (Dirty Pretty Things and American Gangster) is his best friend and Programme Director Dewey Hughes. The racial powderkeg that is DC in the 60’s is well recreated on a limited budget but it is the relationship between these two very different men that works best.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 6 February, 2008.
Special thanks to D at the Embassy for letting me go back to see No Country a second time before deadline.