Eat Pray Love is what they used to call, in the old days, a “women’s picture” and the advertisers who have paid good money to annoy audiences before the film make sure you know it: feminine hygiene products. A chromosomal anomaly on my part means that I’m not in the target market for this film (or the bestselling book that inspired it) but I’ll give it a go. Manfully.
Julia Roberts plays Liz, a phenomenally bad playwright and (supposedly) successful author who has a crisis and ends her (supposedly) unsatisfactory marriage to bewildered and hurt Billy Crudup. Never having lived without a man in her life she goes straight into a relationship with handsome and spiritual young actor James Franco.
Still unhappy, and a source of enormous frustration to her ethnically diverse best friend Viola Davis (Doubt), she uses her share of the Crudup divorce to take a year off and find herself – Italy for the food, India for the guru and Bali for Javier Bardem.
It’s never been a tougher time to be running a film festival. In addition to the usual commercial considerations of just selling enough tickets to stay afloat, each year brings with it fresh wrinkles to be accommodated. The window of availability of titles shrinks every year because distributors don’t want to sit on their investment. There’s increasing pressure to get films into cinemas before downloading destroys the market and less time for films to build a deserving international buzz.
In previous years films like the Argentinian Best Foreign Language Oscar winner The Secrets in their Eyes might have been tent-pole features for a Wellington Film Festival but have already been and gone from local cinemas so it’s incumbent on director and chief programmer Bill Gosden (and his cohorts) to dig deeper to find more gems for our annual mid-winter fix.
People keep asking me, Dan, they say, what sort of Festival is it, this year, and I have to answer that I really don’t know. I’ve only seen 19 out of the 160+ movies in the book. That’s not enough to know anything, really, about the Festival as a whole. It’s less than 15% of an enormously rich and diverse smörgåsbord of potential goodies.
As usual, I asked the Festival people to feed me the unheralded and unknown, the films that might miss out on attention from the big media, and they did. As might be expected, not all of them worked for me but I have some suggestions for films that I am assured will not be coming back on general release later this year.
In the drama section I was very affected by Honey, a beautiful Turkish film about a young boy with some kind of learning disorder, desperate for the approval of his teachers, classmates and his taciturn beekeeper father. A fine example of slow cinema, I feel certain that you will be absorbed by its beauty and the miraculous central performance.
After nearly three and a half years of producing this cinemagoers’ consumer guide, perhaps its time for a statement of intent. A manifesto, if you will. Something to place these musings in perspective as you skim through them over Morning Tea.
I try and find something good and interesting in everything I see, and I see pretty much everything. Most films have an audience of some description waiting for them somewhere, and that audience may be you, so I try and outline what might appeal (along with what might not) so that you can make an informed choice.
Plus, I have some sympathy for the little battler and will often try and draw your attention in that direction (Don’t forget Two Lovers, folks) and I try and watch films not meant for me (kids flicks, etc) with half an eye on how the rest of the audience is reacting.
It is extremely rare, as regular readers will know, for me to warn you off a film entirely, or indeed (in the case of our first film this week) suggest that its creators should be harshly punished for its perpetration. The films that are really sand under my foreskin are those that only exist to pad a resumé and a bank balance, cynical attempts to separate us from our money, marketing campaigns crudely disguised as art.
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.
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>