Can I have a quick word with you about forgiveness? Not for me, you understand — I’ve nothing to apologise for — but the forgiveness we show to films we love, forgiveness for cinematic transgressions that would kill our enjoyment for lesser works. Let’s take as an example Wayne Blair’s The Sapphires. The storytelling is occasionally clunky — important plot points are delivered by telephone or messenger like a helpful deus ex machina — and some of the supporting cast don’t appear to know what movie they are in. Its ambitions push hard at the seams of the budget constraints and occasionally burst them revealing the thin lining inside. But the film has such a big heart and so much love for its characters that those flaws are easy to overlook and getting swept along on seems like the easiest and best option.
It’s 1968 and war is raging in Southeast Asia while the American civil rights battle is tearing America apart. Meanwhile in sleepy Cummeragunga NSW, the aboriginal McRae sisters sing country and western standards to unappreciative white pub audiences and dream of fame and fortune in the big city. Discovered by failed cruise ship entertainments officer Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd), they set their sights on entertaining the troops in Vietnam but to do that they have to embrace some soul roots and get over some long-suppressed family issues.
The main problem I have reviewing Rian Johnson’s Looper is that the most interesting discussion about the film can only be had with others who have seen it. The film diverges brilliantly from its marketing premise about half way through and the surprise is so precious — and adds even more fascinating layers — that to discuss it here would be the absolute definition of the word spoiler. Suffice to say: if you like intelligent science fiction you should make immediate plans to view Looper and allow time afterwards to digest with other people. It changes, the more you talk about it.
The premise is enticing enough. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a Looper, a specialised hitman with the job of rubbing out inconveniences from the future who are sent back in time by the mob so they can be cleanly disposed of. Every now and then a Looper’s future self is sent back in order that another layer of evidence is removed. This is called “Closing the Loop” and the Looper then knows he has 30 years left to enjoy life before he’ll end up as his own victim.
Due to a parade of wonderful Film Festival screenings your correspondent was only able to get to one of this week’s new releases (and, thanks to the Empire’s failure to open on Sunday morning nearly didn’t make that one) so Glee: the 3D Concert Movie and rom-com Something Borrowed will have to wait until next week’s column. I’m sure you are breathless with anticipation. But this means that Cowboys & Aliens — Jon Favreau’s third comic book adaptation in a row after Iron Man 1 and 2 — gets the full review treatment. Does it deserve it? We shall see.
The scene is frontier New Mexico between the end of the Civil War and the arrival of the railroad. A tiny little town, built for a gold rush that never materialised, is only kept alive because of grumpy Harrison Ford’s cattle business. In the desert outskirts Daniel Craig wakes up with amnesia, a strange metal bracelet and an ability with unarmed combat that soon scores him a horse, a gun and a dog.
Dedicated to Anderson’s hero, Robert Altman, Blood is a beast of a different colour to Old Men: a heavy-weight Western-style epic pouring oil on the myth of the American dream and then dropping a match on it. The amazing Daniel Day-Lewis plays independent prospector, oil man and misanthrope Daniel Plainview. Determined to separate simple people from the oil under their feet he uses his adopted child in order to resemble an honest family man while he plots the downfall of his enemies.
There Will Be Blood ruthlessly dissects the two competing powers of 20th Century American life: capitalism and religion, each as cynical and corrupt as the other. Paul Dano (the comically mute son in Little Miss Sunshine) is a revelation as charismatic pastor Eli Sunday, the only character strong enough to merit a battle of wills with Plainview – a battle to the finish.
Listless rom-com 27 Dresses comes to life for one amusing montage of weddings and dresses (about half way in) but otherwise this star-vehicle for Katherine Heigl (Knocked Up) seems under-powered. She’s joined in the film by James Marsden (Enchanted) (not normally a cause for rejoicing, and so it proves once again here) and Malin Akerman (The Heartbreak Kid) who isn’t nearly as funny as she thinks she is. Heigl plays a supposedly plain, self-effacing, young woman who organises the lives (and weddings) of all those around her while secretly pining for a wedding of her own with Boss Ed Burns.
Rogue Assassin is big and dumb and doesn’t even succeed on it’s own limited terms. Former member of the British Olympic Diving Team, Jason Statham (Crank) plays an inexplicably English-accented FBI agent in the Asian Crime Unit. He’s on the trail of an ex-CIA hitman named Rogue (Jet Li) who is engaged in a Yojimbo-like plot to destroy San Francisco’s Yakuza and Triad gangs. Fans of Jet Li’s trademark balletic martial arts will be disappointed as anything more than standing around looking stern seems to be beyond him now. The daft twist at the end will provide some much-needed amusement.
Danish provocateur director Lars von Trier recently announced his retirement from filmmaking due to depression. He hasn’t ceased involvement in film, though, as his company Zentropa is still producing some of the most unusual and challenging films around and Red Road is a perfect example, the first release in a new project called The Advance Party. Zentropa producers Lone Scherfig & Anders Thomas Jensen (Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself) created several characters and then gave those characters (and a set of rules about how they should be used) to three writer-directors in the hope that the three films together would prove greater than the sum of the parts.
The first film, Andrea Arnold’s Red Road, isn’t just an interesting experiment, it’s actually very good. Lonely Glasgow CCTV operator Jackie (Kate Dickie) is haunted by an unspecified tragedy from her past. When she sees an unexpected face on her monitor she, in spite of herself, is forced to confront him and her own grief. The Red Road council estate, that gives the film it’s name, makes Newtown Park Flats look like the Isle of Capri, and the whole thing has a Loach-ian grit that is happily well-balanced by some beautiful cinematography. The film itself plays out slowly, but not inevitably, and the surprise revelation at the end is less powerful but somehow more moving than you expect.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 20 February, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: There Will Be Blood screened at Rialto Wellington on Saturday afternoon. The image was incorrectly masked so that the vertical cyan soundtrack along the left of the screen was clearly visible throughout. The projectionist was alerted but he shrugged his shoulders and said there was nothing he could do about it. We have about six more weeks of Rialto Wellington and I volunteer to swing the first wrecking-ball.