The first thing you need to understand about A Good Day to Die Hard is that it isn’t really a Die Hard movie. In the same way that instant coffee and espresso coffee share a name but are in fact entirely different beverages, you’d be wise to go to a Good Day screening with modest expectations — expectations that would already have been lowered if you’d seen 2007’s dismal Die Hard 4.0 (aka Live Free and Die Hard).
Bruce Willis plays Detective John McClane for the fifth time since 1988 but this time there’s no smirk, no glint in his eye and none of the recognisable human frailties that made the original character so appealing. Instead, he’s just what everybody always said he was — an asshole. When his son is arrested by Moscow authorities for what looks like a mob hit, McClane heads to Eastern Europe to try and save a boy he hardly knows. As usual, McClane becomes “the fly in the ointment, the monkey in the wrench” and he immediately lands in the middle of a CIA operation to extract a rebel oligarch hiding information that could bring down the government, his untimely intervention destroying most of Moscow’s traffic in the process.
After a week when New Zealand has been forced to confront its own intolerance and social myopia it seems fitting that two films that are essentially about understanding and accepting diversity should arrive in cinemas in the same week. They both take drastically different approaches to the topic, too.
In Dinner for Schmucks, ambitious hedge fund analyst Paul Rudd has to find a guest to take to a monthly senior management party in which unusual people are secretly held up to ridicule. When his Porsche knocks over mild mannered public servant and amateur taxidermist Steve Carell he thinks he’s found the right man. But Carell’s character, Barry, latches on to him causing mayhem wherever he goes.
Eventually, after Rudd’s relationship and career are wrecked, they both reach a deeper understanding of each other and some decent human values: laughing with someone is ok. At someone? Not so much. And if you are anything like me, you will laugh.
It’s a little known fact in the movie industry that most cinema releases serve no greater purpose than to provide some advance publicity for an inevitable DVD release. This week seven new films were released into the Wellington market and barely more than a couple of them justified taking up space and time on a big movie screen.
First up, I Love You, Man — another in the endless parade of cash-ins on the formula literally coined by Judd Apatow with 40-year-old Virgin and Knocked Up. In this version usual side-kick Paul Rudd takes centre-stage as mild-mannered real estate agent Peter Klaven, engaged to be married but with no Best Man. All his friends are women, you see, and hijinks ensue as he attempts to generate some heterosexual male friendships and get some bro-mance in his life.
The key thing to point out here is that I love You, Man isn’t very funny and is very slow, but it will trot out the door of the video shop when the time comes, thanks to people like me giving it the oxygen of publicity. Dash it, sucked in again.
I don’t have much room this week and I want to spend most of it gushing over Slumdog Millionaire so let’s get started.
Back in 2003, when the Incredibly Strange Film Festival was still its own bumptious stand-alone anarchic self, we opened the Festival with the summer camp spoof Wet Hot American Summer and goodness me, wasn’t that a time? Written and directed by David Wain, WHAS was a pitch-perfect tribute to teen comedies of the 80s and his new film Role Models attempts to ride the current wave of sexually frank grown-up comedies but he doesn’t seem to really have the heart for it. The gross-out bits are uncomfortably gross, the boobies seem like afterthoughts and the film really doesn’t hit its straps until it starts cheering for the underdog late in the day.
Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott play salesman peddling energy drink to high school kids. After an unfortunate (stationary) road rage incident their jail time is converted to community service at Sturdy Wings — a ‘big brother’ outfit matching misfit kids up with responsible male adults. This kind of material has proved outstandingly popular recently when produced by Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and I can’t help thinking that if he had gotten his hands on Role Models it would have about 20% more jokes in 16% shorter running time — he really is that much of a machine.
While the Film Festival takes up a justifiably huge chunk of time and mindspace during these two weeks the world of commercial cinema has hit back hard with two of the best films of the year.
Amazing Grace is a handsome period piece about the campaigning life of William Wilberforce, tireless toiler for social justice and what we now call human rights in the 19th century. The film focusses on his leadership of the movement to ban the transatlantic slave trade in the teeth of entrenched commercial and political opposition. 11 million African men, women and children were dragged from their homes, clapped in chains and forced to work in the plantations and refineries that fuelled the British Empire.
Wilberforce is played by Mr Fantastic (or Captain Hornblower, if you prefer) Ioan Gruffudd and, despite his lack of heavyweight credentials, he holds up nicely in competition with some of British cinema’s finest. The Great Gambon (most recently Dumbledore in Harry Potter), Rufus Sewell (The Illusionist), Toby Jones (Infamous), Stephen Campbell Moore (The History Boys) and the marvellous Albert Finney all get moments to rise above the occasionally clunky, exposition-heavy, script.
Finney, in particular, as the former slave-ship captain John Newton who actually wrote the hymn Amazing Grace (and the line “who saved a wretch like me” comes from deep inside a tortured conscience) is splendid.
Even better is Knocked Up, Judd Apatow’s brilliant follow-up to The 40 Year Old Virgin. Supporting actor in the earlier film, Seth Rogen, gets promoted to the lead as Ben Stone, a fun-loving layabout who gets his one night stand pregnant and then learns the hard way about responsibility, adulthood and love. Or you could say it’s about Katherine Heigl’s character Alison Scott, an ambitious reporter for the E! Channel who gets pregnant to a one night stand and then learns the hard way about family, sacrifice and pain.
Either way you choose it, Knocked Up is a wonderful film that shows a deep-seated love for life in all it’s gooey glory. The supporting cast are perfect, including (the sometimes patchy) Paul Rudd and Mrs Apatow, Leslie Mann, as the scary married couple our heroes use to alternately inspire or repel each other.
Judd Apatow made his name in television, writing and producing shows like “The Ben Stiller Show” and the great “Freaks and Geeks”. Another “Freaks and Geeks” alumni, Mike White, also has a feature out this week: Year of the Dog starring Molly Shannon. Shannon plays dowdy secretary Peggy whose beloved dog Pencil dies in somewhat mysterious circumstances leaving her alone to face the world.
In her attempts to replace Pencil with something (another dog, a man) she learns a little bit about the world and an awful lot about herself. Like Knocked Up there’s a contrast-couple, there to show our heroes what life might be like if only they gave up being themselves, in this case played by Laura Dern and Thomas McCarthy; and like Knocked Up there’s a lot of episodic comedy moments though with a much darker edge.
Year of the Dog is White’s first feature as director (after writing films like Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl and The School of Rock) and it seems as if he hasn’t directed this film so much as written and photographed it. That’s not to say that it isn’t enjoyable — it is. It’s just not terribly cinematic.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 25 July, 2007.
Nature of conflict: Year of the Dog opens at the Academy Cinema in Auckland on Weds 1 Aug. I do contract work for them designing and maintaining their website.