Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire was my film of the year for 2009 – a potent and punchy roller-coaster ride of a film that made everything for months afterwards seem quaintly old-fashioned. His new film, 127 Hours, doesn’t break the mould to quite the same degree but does feature similar stylistic effects: messing with time and structure, split-screens, domineering soundtrack, etc.
The new film is also an adaptation of previously existing material, Aron Ralston’s memoir “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”, and once again Boyle has collaborated with screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (notorious in New Zealand for The Full Monty). Ralston (played by James Franco) was an engineer by trade but an outdoorsman by inclination and he loved to roam the Utah canyons on bike and on foot. In 2003 he fall into a narrow ravine and his right arm was trapped by a boulder. He was there for five days before realising that the only way he was going to walk out was if he left the arm behind.
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.
One of the benefits of a marginally-classical education is that when someone makes a film about King Leonidas and The Battle of Thermopylae I have a vague idea what they’re on about before I go in but nothing could prepare me for the sheer visceral “total” film-making on display in Zack Snyder’s extraordinary 300. Involving and repellent by turns, it’s a thrilling testament to full-on masculine male manliness; unspeakably violent of course but extreme in almost every other way imaginable too.
Based on Frank Miller’s $80-a-copy graphic novel (recreated frame for beautiful frame in many cases), 300 follows Leonidas and his hand-picked Spartan army as they try to defend a disinterested Greece from a million Persians, their slaves, elephants and transexuals.
Leonidas is played with considerable star-making charisma by Gerard Butler (Dear Frankie); Aussie David Wenham narrates as if he got punch in the throat as well losing an eye in the battle and the beautiful Lena Headey as Queen proves that Spartan women were made of the same perfectly formed but psychologically incomplete material as the men.
Fresh from the Showcase, The Namesake is a lovingly rendered (if overlong) adaptation of the novel of the same name by Jhumpa Lahiri featuring Kal Penn (given name: Kalpen Modi), veteran star of juvenile rubbish like Epic Movie and Van Wilder. Penn proves he really can act as Gogol Ganguly, New York-born Indian searching for an identity that doesn’t involve his embarrassing first name.
In the initially bewildering Stomp The Yard, Columbus Short plays DJ, a young hoodlum and gifted dancer who is given one more chance after the death of his younger brother in a dance-related brawl. That chance involves enrolling in Truth University, the legendary African-American centre of learning and culture where the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Michael Jordan set the highest alumni standards.
At Truth he finds his dancing skills are tested in the National Steppin’ Contest (a kind of team dancing unique to Black America) and his romantic skills are given a tweak by the beautiful April (Meagan Good). I’m about as far away from the target market for this film as can be imagined but, once I’d worked out that this dancing stuff was actually serious, I quite enjoyed it.
Meanwhile, Vitus is a little sweetie from Switzerland about a gifted child who desperately wants to be normal. A lovely performance from twinkly Bruno Ganz is worth the price of admission and Teo Georghiu as 12-year-old Vitus really has the chops to make that old joanna sing. Remarkable.
Finally a couple of disposable items for the school holidays: TMNT is actually the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and it boasts video-game quality animation and a slumming Patrick Stewart on villain-voice-duty. I found the turtles really annoying but, then again, they are teenagers. It’s sort of the point.
Much more entertaining is Disney’s Meet the Robinsons, an anarchic affair that unlike other animated films has a kind of improvised quality, bouncing along chucking jokes in random directions and a few of them stick. 12 year old orphan Lewis is a gifted inventor desperate for a family. When his latest invention is stolen by mysterious Bowler Hat Guy, young hot-head Wilbur Robinson arrives from the future to help set things straight (and help Lewis find his mother).
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on 11 April, 2007.