It’s a question that has been burning away inside all of us for nearly 75 years – how did the Wizard (who wasn’t really a wizard at all but a carnival showman with a knack for gadgets) get to Oz in the first place? You neither, huh? Ah well, this least essential question has now been answered by Spider-Man (and Evil Dead) director Sam Raimi and his team of pixel-wielding minions. As a prequel to the beloved 1939 film starring Judy Garland and a dog called Toto, Oz the Great and Powerful is not without risk. Other attempts to recreate L. Frank Baum’s magical world have been either commercial or artistic failures – The Wiz, for example, or Return to Oz.
Casting the human smirk, James Franco, as the carnival magician transported to the land of the yellow brick road by a hot air balloon (via tornado) is also a risk but it eventually pays off, even though Franco’s boyish features are starting to look a bit ragged. Escaping various romantic and financial pressures back home in black and white Kansas, Franco’s Oz finds himself blown off course to a technicolor(ish) fantastical land where a prophecy suggests he will protect the peace-loving citizens from wicked witches but also gain control of the palace fortune. Guess which one appeals more.
In The Bourne Legacy, Matt Damon’s amnesiac super-soldier Jason Bourne is a shadowy figure, looming invisibly over a plot that for contractual reasons can’t accommodate him. It’s as if he’s in the sin bin – after a yellow card for demanding director approval – watching the clock tick down until he can take the field again.
The director that Damon objected to is Tony Gilroy – co-writer of all the Bournes and writer-director of Michael Clayton – and next time someone should listen to Damon’s instincts. He said he wouldn’t do another Bourne without Paul Greengrass (director of the last two, Supremacy and Ultimatum) and the weird compromise concocted by Gilroy to keep the franchise alive will probably only satisfy the studio and the Robert Ludlum estate. Bourne is on life support but no more than that.
All of the “will they, won’t they” nonsense has been leading to this so – at least narratively speaking – they are finally getting on with it. After the longest wedding scene in cinema history – of films that don’t have the word ‘wedding’ in the title – Bella (Kristen Stewart) and Edward (Robert Pattinson) head off to a remote Brazilian island to play chess on the beach and consumate their relationship.
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.
In past columns this reviewer has pretty much unilaterally labelled 27 year old Ryan Gosling as the new Marlon Brando (thanks to extraordinary performances in Half Nelson and The Believer) but it is unlikely that even Brando would have been brave enough to choose Lars and the Real Girl as one of his projects. Lars is a slightly damaged young man, living in the garage of his family home in a snowy northern American town. Under pressure from the family and the community to be a bit more normal, Lars finds himself a girlfriend on the Internet – an anatomically correct doll named Bianca.
A lovely, sweet film about acceptance, love and judgement (lack of), Lars is another winner in a summer of them. Gosling’s performance is a thing of wonder but it wouldn’t be half as successful without great work from Paul Schneider, Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson to play off. Kudos to them all. Not to be missed.
The Eye screened in Cinema 6 at Readings and was the most handsome on-screen presentation I have seen since I started this gig: pin sharp focus, consistent light levels across the entire screen, no print damage and a perfectly steady flicker-free image. It’s a shame that the film was such garbage but you take your pleasure where you can find it. (Flicker is the unacknowledged curse of poor projection. Watching a film without it is like walking down Courtenay Place without the wind punching you in the arm the whole way. You don’t realise how annoying it is until it’s gone.)
Jessica Alba plays a blind concert violinist who gets a pair of haunted corneas in a transplant but instead of the real world she begins to see visions of death all around her. Yet another tired remake of an asian horror (this one came from Hong Kong originally) The Eye struggles and fails to justify its own existence.
Never Back Down is the ugly and offensive story of a high school kid (Sean Faris), angry and bitter after the death of his father in a drunk-driving accident he could have prevented, who gets involved in the local fight club and take on the bullies using mixed-martial-arts and the training of a wise guru (Djimon Hounsou).
An artefact from a decrepit and derelict culture, I hated this film so much I left the theatre and immediately tried to locate my Al-Qaeda application forms. Irredeemable.
But at least I stuck it out to the end which is more than I can say for the dreary French rom-com Change of Address. I don’t often leave films early but after yet another scene featuring several double-entendres about the main characters horn (he plays and teaches French Horn) I wasn’t sure whether I was watching an art movie or “Are You Being Served?”
There must be an audience for Bonneville, a pleasant road movie featuring the great Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates and Joan Allen, though the attendance on Monday night would indicate otherwise. It’s a shame there was nobody else there as there was some pleasure to be got from watching great screen actresses working together in a story that was . Our trio play three mormon women (of varying degrees of devotion) who are carrying the ashes of Lange’s husband to his estranged daughter in California. Traversing the backroads of Idaho, Utah and Nevada in the convertible that gives the film its name, they meet some interesting people, have some adventures and learn a bit about each other. Nothing startling but perfectly pleasant.
Opening Thursday for a limited engagement is Helen Smyth’s remarkable local documentary about Cuba, ¿La Verdad? (The Truth?). On an extended holiday in Cuba in 2000 Smyth met a delightful old gentleman named Nestor and spent several weeks interviewing him about his life before and after the revolution. He identified himself as an independent journalist and said he was too old to get any attention from the security police so he could write what he liked and support the counter-revolutionary organisations in Miami. Well, the truth was infinitely more interesting than even that.
The film is a lively testament to a good journalist’s instinct for a story as she finds herself unravelling layers of intrigue and learning about more than a century of U.S. involvement in Latin America – all thanks to a chance meeting on a bus. Special mention must also be made of the photography, particularly Geoff Marsland’s Super 8 footage of modern Cuba which adds so much to the flavour of the piece.
Finally, a surprising winner called Definitely, Maybe: another romantic comedy from the Working Title stable (Love Actually , etc). Ryan Reynolds (Smokin’ Aces) plays Will, about to divorce his wife. Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) is his 9 year old daughter and, understandably upset about this turn of events, she demands to know how this could happen. Were they never in love? Will tells her the story of his romantic life (changing the names) so she can see how complicated grown-up relationships are. Which of the three significant others over the period 1992 to 1998 (Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz and Isla Fisher) becomes Mom? It’s actually a lot more elegant than I’ve made it sound, and well-observed, too, about lots of things (not least Presidential politics). I’d watch it again, and I don’t think that very often.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 9 April, 2008 (although for cover photo reasons Aaron made The Eye the lead).
Notes on screening conditions: Lars and the Real Girl screened at a public preview in Penthouse 3; The Eye was almost perfect in Readings 6 (coincidentally that is the Readings digital cinema so maybe the 35mm got a tweak recently); Never Back Down was a public matinée screening at Readings; Change of Address was in the Bergman at the Paramount and the print was looking its age; Bonneville was in the Vogue Lounge at the Penthouse which has no digital sound and the sound was very poor – blown-speaker poor; ¿La Verdad? (The Truth?) was screened at home from a preview DVD and Definitely, Maybe was another public Readings matinée. I have to say for all their faults in terms of atmosphere the technical conditions at Readings are generally excellent.
There was a time when a new improv comedy from Christopher Guest and his regular cast of inspired comics would be eagerly awaited but as time goes by the returns are proving meager. For Your Consideration could have been the cream of the crop – after all Hollywood, the subject matter, is closest to the creators real lives and the targets are big and soft. Maybe that’s the problem.
Catherine O’Hara, Harry Shearer and Parker Posey play actors shooting the perfectly awful Home For Purim when an internet gossip starts a rumour that their work might be Oscar material. The sad thing is that that Catherine O’Hara’s performance as tragic Marilyn Hack might actually have been worthy of Oscar consideration if it had been in a better film.
Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie star in The Good Shepherd, a worthy American counterpoint to the classic Le Carré spy stories of the 70’s and 80’s – “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, etc. – where the spies of both sides have more in common with each other than they do with their friends or their families. Despite the formation of the CIA as background, and a couple of telling illustrations of their revolution-toppling, despot-installing methods, it isn’t a particularly political film, but a portrait of a damaged but brilliant young man turning into an even more damaged middle-aged one.
An excellent cast notably Joe Pesci, Michael Gambon and William Hurt are well-served by Robert De Niro’s experienced, actor-friendly direction. He really does know what he’s doing behind the camera as well as in front.
I can recommend The Cave of the Yellow Dog as a restful and benign counterpoint to the angry, noisy, nonsense depicted in so many films these days. In Mongolia, the six ‑year-old daughter of a herder finds a stray dog and wants to keep it but father worries that it will bring bring wolves. It’s a classic story told in a relaxed documentary style; it probably should have been called “Lhassi”.
Science-fiction; fantasy; romance; oil painting: The Fountain is like no film I’ve ever seen before and seems to have been made for those people who thought that the “Star Child” sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey was the best bit. I am not one of those people. Hugh Jackman plays Dr Tom Creo whose wife Izzy (Rachel Weisz) is dying of a brain tumour. Tom will do anything to keep her alive including experimental treatments from the bark of a mysterious South American tree. The Fountain is a film to watch more than listen to – quite beautiful and quite barmy.
The continued existence of the motion picture economy is dependent on the appearance of a Hugh Grant romantic comedy once a year whether he feels like it or not, and in Music and Lyrics he seems to be enjoying himself a little more than usual. Perhaps the sloppiness of Marc Lawrence’s direction meant that he wasn’t required to exert himself beyond a couple of takes. He plays Alex Fletcher, has-been star of 80s band Pop! who gets the chance to renew his lease on fame by writing a song for new sensation Cora. The only problem is he doesn’t write lyrics. Luckily, his plant waterer (Drew Barrymore) wrote turgid poetry at college and the rest is thoroughly predictable. Not a complete waste of time, the faux-80s music is right on the money.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on 21 February, 2007.