Of all directors currently working in the Hollywood mainstream Michael Mann is arguably the greatest stylist. No one at the multiplex has more control of the pure aesthetics of filmmaking, from colour balance and composition through editing and sound, Mann’s films (from Thief in 1981 to the misguided reworking of Miami Vice in 2006) have had a European visual sensibility while remaining heavily embedded in the seamy world of crime and punishment.
Now Mann has turned back the clock and made a period crime film, set during the last great depression. Based on the true story of the legendary bank robber John Dillinger, whose gang cut a swathe across the Midwest in 1933 and 1934, Mann’s Public Enemies is a stylish and superbly crafted tale of a doomed hero pursued by a dogged lawman. Dillinger is portrayed by Johnny Depp with his usual swagger and his nemesis is the now sadly ubiquitous Christian Bale.
Dollar for dollar (if not lb for lb) Vince Vaughan is the biggest star in Hollywood. For every dollar invested in a Vaughan film he returns fourteen making him a better bet than Cruise, Pitt, Clooney or Roberts. It’s easy to see why he’s so popular – his easy-going everyman quality annoys fewer people than Carrey and choices like Dodgeball and Wedding Crashers are pretty safe. Even last year’s Fred Claus was a rare watchable Christmas film and this year he repeats the dose with Four Holidays (aka Four Christmases).
Vaughan, and co-star Reese Witherspoon, are DINKs (double-income-no-kids) who maintain their cool lifestyle by avoiding their respective families like the plague. When an unexpected airport closure reveals their plans to party in Fiji instead of feeding the third world, they are obliged to make four different visits on Christmas Day, forcing them to confront the weirdos, sadsacks and dingbats that make up their respective families.
I think I’m out of step with most other critics (not unusual and not a bad thing) but I enjoyed myself watching Four Holidays – Vaughan and Witherspoon actually make a believable couple and the supporting cast (including fine actors like Robert Duvall and Kristin Chenoweth along with country stars Dwight Yoakam and Tim McGraw) has plenty of energy.
Ten years ago, before he became the darling of the Hollywood Hedge Fund set, Vaughan’s career nearly stalled when he played Norman Bates in Gus Van Sant’s ill-advised frame-for-frame remake of Psycho. After the seeing the trailer for Quarantine, I was half expecting it to give a similar treatment to the Spanish shocker [REC] (which prompted messy evacuations earlier in the year) but happily it diverges enough to merit its own review.
A tv crew is following an LA fire department for the night when they are sent to an apartment building where mysterious screams are emanating from one of the flats. Soon after they arrive, the authorities shut the building down to prevent the rabies-like infection from spreading, leaving the residents, fire-fighters and the media to their own devices.
Stronger in character development but slightly weaker in shock value, Quarantine will be worth a look if you found you couldn’t read the subtitles in [REC] because you had your hands over your eyes.
High School Musical 3: Senior Year is the first of the legendary Disney franchise to make it to the big screen but the formula hasn’t changed one bit. Well scrubbed High School kids in Albuquerque put on a show which might send one of them to Julliard. The music runs the full gamut of current pop music styles from Britney to the Backstreet Boys (without the spark of either) and the kids display a full range of emotions from A to B. HSM is betrayed by a lack of ambition married to relentless, obsessive, commitment to competence but, at almost two hours, I suspect it will be too long for most tween bladders to hold out.
Depression is a challenging topic for film (the symptoms are un-cinematic and recovery often takes the form of baby steps which are difficult to dramatise) but Swedish drama Suddenly makes a decent fist of it. Nine months after the car he was driving crashed, taking the lives of his wife and youngest son, eye doctor Lasse (Michael Nyqvist) is falling apart. After what looks like a failed suicide attempt, his parents advise him to take his remaining son (sensitive 15 year old Jonas played by Anastasios Soulis) to his holiday house for the Summer to see if he can take one last chance to heal himself and the family.
Lasse throws himself into repairing the beaten up old rowboat while Jonas falls for the (entirely Swedish looking blonde) local black sheep Helena (Moa Gammel). Despite the apparent energy of the title, Suddenly takes its time getting anywhere but rewards perseverance.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 10 December, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: I’m stoked to report that Suddenly was the first film I’d seen in the Vogue Lounge at the Penthouse since my disappointing experience with Smart People back in August and, despite some print wear, the presentation was perfect. Well done Penthouse.
Arguably, the most important film of the year so far opens this week: Rain of the Children restores Vincent Ward’s reputation as a singular cinema artist, after the desperate travails of River Queen, and uses the essential New Zealand story of Rua Kenana and the Tuhoe resistance as vivid background to a universal story of parenthood and loss.
In this film Ward returns to the subject of his first documentary, In Spring One Plants Alone, a film he made as a naïve 21 year old back in 1979. In that film we watched as 80 year old Puhi attempted to care for her last child, the mentally ill Niki. In Rain, Ward tells Puhi’s whole story – from her Urewera childhood, marriage to the prophet Rua’s son, and then the tragedies that bore down upon her until she (and the rest of her community) considered herself cursed.
The full emotional impact took a while to register with me – long enough that the tears didn’t start until half way through the credits. I’d need to see it again before making the call about “masterpiece” or not, but it certainly felt like that, standing numb in the Wellington rain after the Film Festival screening.
I don’t know what I did to deserve the dubious pleasure of two Brendan Fraser action flicks in two days, but I can’t say I’m all that grateful. Journey to the Centre of the Earth will get it’s review next week but as for The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor the less said the better. The discovery of an abandoned tomb full of relics in western China brings Fraser and Maria Bello (subbing for Rachel Weisz) out of retirement just in time for the magical Eye of Shangri-La to bring evil Emperor Han (Jet Li) back to life. Li has never been the most expressive of actors and, luckily for him, he spends most of the film under a computer-generated mask of stone. It’s what we used to call a romp and is so stuffed with ‘stuff’ that it’s hard to argue that you don’t get your money’s worth, even if it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.
Taken is highly effective, first-rate pulp starring Liam Neeson in the kind of role that Charles Bronson or Lee Marvin might have played back in the day. Neeson isn’t as cool as Marvin, but that’s ok as, by choosing to play his characters faults as well as his strengths, he gives the audience something to connect with (amidst all the violence and mayhem). He plays a retired spy, trying to reconnect with his family who have started over without him. A bit like De Niro in the Fockers films, he’s over-protective, cynical and paranoid but when his daughter is kidnapped by white slavers about an hour after arriving in Paris all his fears come true and only he can do the required rescuing.
Son of Rambow pushes plenty of my 80s English nostalgia-buttons (”Screen Test”, cinemas split into smoking and non-smoking sections, Space Dust & Coke cocktails) but, despite that, I never quite managed to fall in love with it. 10 year old Plymouth Brethren-ite, Will (Bill Milner) discovers Stallone’s First Blood via pirate video and is persuaded by school terror Lee Carter (Will Poulter) to be the stuntman in his VHS-cam tribute. Too reliant on the fatherless-child cliché for its drama, and cartoon whimsy for its comedy, Son of Rambow never quite reaches the heights promised by its central idea.
There’s plenty of excellent drama still to be mined from the Holocaust, as Un Secret (from France) and Austrian Oscar winner The Counterfeiters prove. In the first film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’s Mathieu Amalric searches Paris for his father, while in flashback, he searches his family history for something to explain his own life. There are plenty of secrets to choose from, and one of the pleasures of the film is trying to work out which one is the secret of the title.
While Un Secret focuses on a family’s attempts to stay out of the camps, The Counterfeiters locks us inside with the inmates of Sachsenhausen and it’s a hell of a thing. Karl Markovics plays professional forger Sally Sorowitsch, enlisted by the Nazis to provide expert assistance for their attempts to flood the Allied economy with fake banknotes. Sally sees it as his opportunity to avoid the gas chambers but not everyone on the team shares his single-minded devotion to survival and he is forced to engage with his own lack of idealism.
Markovics’ remarkable cheekbones provide excellent architecture to inspire Benedict Neuenfels’ superb high contrast cinematography and The Counterfeiters is gripping, moving and provocative throughout.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 17 September, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: For once, little to complain about. Rain of the Children as intimated in the body copy, was at a packed Film Festival matinée at the Embassy; The Mummy was also at the Embassy, although more recently, Taken was at Readings 2, courtesy of a pass from Fox, Son of Rambow (which was the cause of some consternation last week) was a torrent; Un Secret was screened from a preview DVD from Hoyts Distribution (due to the already alluded to Penthouse problems) and The Counterfeiters was in the big room at the Paramount where it was a little too quiet (not the end of the world with subtitles) and the print had definitely been around the block a few times.
This is the column I submitted to the Capital Times last week. After a little discussion, Editor Aaron and I decided that it would serve no good purpose in running it in the paper, but it might be of interest here.
First up, I’d like to thank everyone who voted for this column in the Readers’ Poll – very gratifying. It was very nice to confirm that one is read and appreciated.
But I’m not actually reviewing films this week, for a couple of reasons which will give you an idea about how this thing gets put together. For the (almost) two years that I have been dropping this column on you I have attempted, space permitting, to cover every film that gets released in as timely a fashion as we can manage. Not because I desperately need to see the new Nancy Drew film or Curse of the Golden Flower or Meet Dave, but so that you, dear reader, when deciding what to do this weekend, will at least know that a film exists, what it might be about, and that “that clown Slevin hated it” so it’s probably worth a look. It’s a service and nobody else provides it.
This means watching upwards of half a dozen films a week on top of a full-time job and part-time study, making each weekend a military exercise in efficient time management; checking schedules for every cinema along with bus timetables, work rosters, family birthdays, you name it.
This year, the Capital Times wasn’t offered a media pass for Reading Cinemas which meant screening options were reduced somewhat. If a Readings film is playing anywhere else in town, I’ll happily watch it at that location (except Hoyts as Capital Times doesn’t have a pass for there, either) but on the rare occasion they have an exclusive I rely on radio station previews, the occasional distributor pass or the generosity of the Dom-Post’s Graeme Tuckett (as his date). With creativity, we get by.
This week, of the four films opening that haven’t already been covered, three are Readings/Hoyts exclusives which, as you can guess, is an almighty pain in the a$$.
On Saturday I discovered that I am no longer on the Penthouse Cinema’s accredited reviewers list, I’m guessing due to something I wrote in this column a few weeks ago criticising the technical presentation in two of their four cinemas. It was nothing that I hadn’t mentioned to staff at the time (who responded with a shrug) and in the very same column I praised the new cinema 3 which is a lovely room, beautifully proportioned, very comfortable and technically excellent.
I’ve always believed that, because of the intensely local nature of the Capital Times, I should review the experience as well as the individual film and if the cinema is cold (Rialto), the aspect ratio is wrong (Rialto again), the purple soundtrack is clearly visible on the side of the screen (yes, Rialto again – an easy target as they don’t exist anymore): if it effects the experience I’ll mention it. Or not. For example, I didn’t mention that at my last (final?) visit to the Penthouse I tripped over an empty wine bottle left behind from the evening before, had to close the door to the cinema myself once the film had started and, half way through the screening find an attendant and tell them that the house lights had come on.
Of course, the Penthouse is under no obligation to give free tickets to anyone, particularly if they feel they’ve been maligned, but I could have done with finding this out before I schlepped my way up the Brooklyn Hill in the rain and wasted my Saturday afternoon. Son of Rambow is the fourth film of the week, and having been turned away from it, frankly, I’m in no mood to bust my balls trying to see the the others.
I really don’t want to sound all “poor me” about this business, as I say it’s neither here nor there whether I see rubbish like Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution or not, but it’s Capital Times readers that miss out and that bothers me. Normal service will be resumed next week, minus any Penthouse exclusive product until further notice, but I’d be interested to know what readers think. Do you care about standards, or just the films?
It’s babies everywhere in the cinemas at the moment. Last week I reviewed the Tina Fey comedy Baby Mama about a middle-aged woman desperate for a child and this week we have a Helen Hunt drama about a middle-aged woman desperate for a baby and even Hellboy is going to be a daddy.
Then She Found Me, Helen Hunt’s debut as writer-director, is a sensitive and well-acted piece of work (and often much funnier than the Fey version). She plays a New York primary school teacher whose adoptive mother dies two days after her husband (Matthew Broderick) leaves her. Like many adopted children, the desire for a blood-relative is what promotes the desire for a child, but that desire is soon swamped by the arrival of the birth mother she never knew (Bette Midler) and a ready-made family led by Colin Firth. Witty and humane, Then She Found Me is set in a New York people actually live in, populated with people who actually live and breathe. I was quite moved by this film, but then maybe I’m just a big sook.
Back in the 1980s, toiling under the yoke of Thatcherite crypto-fascist intolerance, we used to dream of the German Democratic Republic where according to apologists like Billy Bragg, “you can’t get guitar strings but everyone has a job and decent health care.” Now, of course, thanks to films like The Lives of Others, we know that the rulers of East Germany were just fascists with another uniform and that social justice may be important but isn’t the only kind of justice we need in our lives. Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution is a low-budget British comedy about a naïve family of Yorkshire communists in 1968 who follow their dreams of a workers’ paradise and emigrate to East Germany only to find the truth very much not to their liking.
There might have been an interesting story here buried under the broad comedy – sometimes it seems like Carry on Communism – but the tone is all wrong and it feels as if it has gone intellectually off the rails. There’s some nice architecture although the filmmakers had to go to Hungary to find it.
Sometimes, when you go to the movies, you get the perfect match of film to mood. Not often, but sometimes. Last Friday night, after a week where the ambient stress level at work had amped up yet again, I needed to see something that didn’t require anything of me except my presence and I got it with Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Featuring lots of bright shiny things to keep my attention, lots of loud noises to keep me awake and not much in the way of story to worry about, I enjoyed myself a lot but don’t remember very much. Except noting that, unlike The Dark Knight’s Christopher Nolan, director Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth and the forthcoming Hobbit duo-logy) shoots fight scenes so you can follow what’s going on.
The Paramount’s eclectic (if not schizophrenic) programming policy throws up some odd combinations. The presence of the hideous, animated, Bible-story The Ten Commandments is simply inexplicable while Spanish shocker [REC] is perfect Paramount fodder. And at the same time, Danny Mulheron’s loving home-made documentary about his grandfather, The Third Richard, is getting a well-deserved brief season. The Ten Commandments barely belongs in the $5 DVD bargain-bin (or as a free gift when you sign up with your local evangelicals). It’s a sign of how our culture has changed that in the 50s we got Charlton Heston bringing the tablets down from the mountain, and now we get Christian Slater. And what to make of the subtle re-writing of the commandments themselves: Thou Shalt Not Murder gives you a little more wiggle-room in the killing department than the old-fashioned Thou Shalt Not Kill. Reprehensible.
One is either in to zombie movies or one isn’t, and if one is one will be very happy with [REC]. Set in a Barcelona apartment building where a fly-on-the-wall tv crew are following fire-fighters on an emergency call, [REC] at one point managed to make me jump three times in less than a second – that’s not easy.
The story of Richard Fuchs, architect and composer, emigré and grandfather, is very well told by Danny Mulheron and Sara Stretton. Based around a “rehabilitation” concert in Karlsruhe, last year, where Fuchs’ music was played in public for the first time since his escape to New Zealand in 1939, the film has some stylistic choices that I might not have made but the heart and intelligence of the filmmmakers shine through. It’s a Wellington story, too, and you should see it if you can.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 3 September, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution was interrupted twice by the house lights (a Sunday morning screening in Penthouse 2, still suffering from the annoying screen flicker caused by incorrect shutter timing and the hot spot in the centre of the screen). And I had to go down and close the door at the start of the film. At [REC] quite a few of us were sat in the Brooks (Paramount) amidst the bottles, empty glasses and general rubbish from a whole day’s screenings. <Sigh>
Forgetting Sarah Marshall is an ideal post-Festival palate cleanser: a saucy comedy fresh off the Judd Apatow production line (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up). Here he gives the spotlight to one of his supporting players: Jason Segal (Knocked Up) plays tv composer Peter who within two minutes of the start of the film is dumped by tv star Sarah M. (Kristen Bell from “Veronica Mars”). He goes to Hawaii to recover only to discover that his ex is also there – with her new English rock star boyfriend. Very funny in parts, surprisingly moving at times thanks to a heartfelt performance from big lump Segal, FSM gets an extra half a star for featuring professional West Ham fanRussell Brand, playing a version of his sex-addicted stage persona.