After the abject disaster that was the Nicolas Cage vehicle Next, I am surprised to report that Once Were Warriors director Lee Tamahori has made another film. And even more surprised to report that it looks quite interesting.
Keen-eyed readers will remember that a year ago I nominated The Golden Compass as my most-eagerly-awaited title of 2007. So, how did it pan out? I’m one of those who consider Philip Pulman’s His Dark Materials books to be the most important works of fiction produced in the last 20 years and I was surprised at how closely the film followed Book One (“Northern Lights”), possibly to its detriment. I was worried that a film with much exposition and detailed scene-setting might prove unwatchable but my companion (unfamiliar with the books) found it thrilling whereas I found it hard to let myself go and relax into it – maybe second time around.
Disney’s Enchanted saw Amy Adams reprise her Oscar-nominated wide-eyed naïf from Junebug. Unfortunately, as Princess Giselle from the animated kingdom of Andalasia, she couldn’t overcome the collective blandness of James Marsden as fictional-world love interest or Patrick Dempsey as real-world love interest; diversions were provided by Timothy Spall and the first of several animated chipmunks to land this Christmas.
The next fluffy rodents to arrive were the “singing” trio from Alvin and the Chipmunks, a recreation of someone’s favourite childhood pop butchers. Jason Lee is a waste of space as the songwriter who discovers them but the little critters themselves will keep your inner 8‑year-old amused for a while.
Also for the kids was the well-meaning but slightly po-faced Loch Ness monster fantasy The Water Horse, another high-class product of the family-friendly Walden Media/Weta/NZ confederation. A tremendous overseas cast led by Ben Chaplin and Emily Watson are joined by familiar and reliable local faces like Joel Tobeck and Geraldine Brophy.
National Treasure: Book of Secrets saw Nicolas Cage arise from his coma and make a little more of an effort than he did earlier this year in Next: it’s a noisy romp in which unlikely characters and implausible situations combine to bamboozle any seeker after logic. Helen Mirren, Harvey Keitel and Ed Harris add gravitas.
Will Smith returned in the oft-made man alone thriller I Am Legend, a perfect example of a poor script made palatable by classy direction and a superb leading man at the top of his game. Smith plays Lt-Col Robert Neville: decorated war veteran, ace micro-biologist and (judging by his address opposite the Washington Square Arch) heir to the Rockefeller fortune too. A genetically mutated virus that was supposed to cure cancer has gone rogue. 99% of the population has died, 1% have turned into bloodthirsty zombies and only one man is immune – handily for our purposes the one man who might know how to create a vaccine. Lots of frights, lots of great action and a magnificently seamless creation of abandoned New York make it certainly worth a look. At least until the last 15 minutes when, sadly, it just gets stupid.
Finally, to the arthouse: Sweet Land is an unheralded gem set in beautiful rural Minnesota among the Northern European immigrants who were making their lives on that land in the first quarter of the last century. Elizabeth Reaser plays German immigrant Inge who travels from Germany to meet Lars, the man who is to be her husband. But she speaks no English, has no papers and the locals are suspicious of Germans – the marriage is forbidden. True love conquers all but not before the bitter sweet tale ties three generations and the fertile farmland together. Recommended.
A monument to the Digital Intermediate Colourist’s art, The Kite Runner is an adaptation of the beloved novel by Khaled Hosseini, directed by Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, currently shooting the new Bond). Affecting but manipulative, The Kite Runner is a story of guilt and redemption (usually catnip to me) but in the end it relied too much on outrageous coincidence to be truly satisfying. Great performances from Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada as Young Hassan and Homayoun Ershadi as Baba mean it is never less than watchable.
Priceless is yet another French film about mistaken identity and class restrictions: they seem to be more obsessed about class and status than the poms. Gad Elmaleh (The Valet) and Amelie’s Audrey Tautou play two ambitious individuals from the serving class: he walks dogs and tends bar at a flash hotel and she is a gold digger trying to snare a rich old husband. The fact that both actors are of North African descent (and therefore are excluded from the ranks of the real French who sit at the top table) is either a subtle stroke of genius or dodgy racism depending on the degree of Christmas spirit you want to demonstrate.
Finally, The Darjeeling Limited is a winning tale of lost young men, searching for a father figure, from the modern day poet of father figure searches, Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic). There’s no great thematic or stylistic leap made by Anderson here but he is honing this stuff to a fine art. Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman are three brothers on a spiritual journey across India but it is the recently deceased father who casts the longest shadow. Well made and often very funny, The Darjeeling Limited is very easy to enjoy and Anderson’s taste is exquisite.
To be printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday, 16 Jan, 2008. I am taking a weekend off, away from the Internet and cinema so will catch up with the week’s new releases next week.
Baltimore in the 60s must have been quite a place as it has inspired films like Barry Levinson’s Diner and Tin Men as well as the entire John Waters canon, from Mondo Trasho and Pink Flamingos to Hairspray and Cry-Baby in the 90s. Now Waters’ transgressive vision of outsider-dom has been absorbed in to the mainstream with the sanitised, PG, version of Hairspray, now transformed in to a Broadway musical and back on the screen. Full of stars having a gay old time, including the rarely seen Michelle Pfeiffer, Hairspray The Musical is a lot of fun and if the kids who enjoy it look up John Waters on the internet that would be a good thing too.
In Ratatouille, there’s a lovely moment when Remy, a French rat with a nose for fine food, discovers the beautiful possibilities of mixing flavours and a passion for fine cooking begins. The animation is beyond anything yet seen and the eye for the detail and respect for the kitchen is extraordinary – the chefs have scars on their hands and burns on their wrists – but the story doesn’t quite measure up to the technical achievement. Pretty entertaining, all the same.
Two films released this week go to prove that, even with millions of dollars of studio backing, making a film is very difficult indeed if you don’t really know why you’re doing it. The Invasion is a remake of two classic paranoid science-fiction films, both called The Invasion of The Body Snatchers, and stars Nicole Kidman as a psychiatrist trying to save her son who may be immune to the alien virus that is taking over the planet. While The Invasion may confirm everything you have always suspected about hotel catering, that may be all it is good for. A complete failure on almost every level.
Incredibly, The Invasion wasn’t even the worst film I saw that day. Lee Tamahori’s Next was even more listless than The Invasion and nobody involved looked even slightly engaged. A rogue nuke is missing somewhere in the continental United States and rogue FBI agent Julianne Moore manages to divert the entire investigation into finding Las Vegas magician Nicolas Cage because he has the ability to see two minutes into the future.
Meanwhile, the Russians and the French who have the nuke are also after Cage for no reason at all that I could work out. At one point an FBI agent watching Cage on a surveillance monitor exclaimed “Can you believe this shit?” and someone in the audience yelled “No!”. Actually, on reflection, that might have been me. Sorry.
Based on a best-selling memoir by successful academic and philosopher Raimond Gaita, Romulus, My Father is the story of a difficult childhood in 1960s rural Victoria. Both Gaita’s parents were Romanian immigrants, and due to the isolation, or perhaps some inherently Balkan moodiness, they both struggled with severe depression. Gaita’s mother (Run, Lola, Run’s Franka Potente) wasn’t really into being a mother until it was too late and his father (Eric Bana) never gets over the heartbreak of her abandonment.
The film is directed by actor Richard Roxburgh and his respect for his cast means we often linger a little longer on them than is necessary and the Victorian State by-law that says every film shot in the hinterland has to look like an oil painting is in full effect.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday, 12 September, 2007.
Notes on screening conditions: Hairspray viewed at a Sunday afternoon MoreFM radio preview at Readings (free haircare products – woohoo); Ratatouille screened commercially at a strangely not full session at the Empire in Island Bay on Friday night; The Invasion and Next were viewed at the earliest possible commercial screenings at Readings last Thursday beside Dom-Post reviewer Graeme Tuckett and Romulus, My Father was at the Penthouse on Monday afternoon and the print was in the poorest condition of any release print I have seen – looked like a gang of luminous green wasps in the middle of the screen.