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.
I don’t know what the French did to be so roundly insulted at the movies this week but I’d advise them to steer clear of Wellington cinemas for a while – perhaps until their film festival gets under way again next year. Firstly, crass action auteur Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil) attempts to reboot a franchise from one of France’s most cherished pieces of literature but then makes The Three Musketeers without a single French person appearing on screen.
Half way through Winter’s Bone I found myself thinking, “So, this is what the Western has become?” The best Westerns are about finding or sustaining a moral path though a lawless frontier and the frontier in Winter’s Bone is the hidden world of the rural poor and the path is a strange and terrifying one.
In the rough and remote Ozark Mountains, teenage Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is single-handedly bringing up her two young siblings while caring for her emotionally damaged mother. One cold morning the Sheriff turns up with the news that her father, Jessup, used their house as his bail bond and unless Ree can find him and persuade him to turn up for Court, the family will lose everything.
Jessup is (or maybe was) what we would call a ‘P’ dealer – the only economy in the area showing any kind of growth. But the company he was keeping were the meanest of the mean and to find her father Ree must venture into dangerous territory.
Keira Knightley may only be 23 but (along with Daniel Craig and Simon Pegg) she’s been given the unenviable job of saving the British film industry, a challenging task for someone with talent but a hard road for a young woman still learning a craft for which she often seems ill-suited. Next week we will review the mid-budget costume drama The Duchess but right now she is headlining another WWII romance (c.f. Atonement), John Maybury’s The Edge of Love.
Knightley plays Vera Phillips, a young Welsh girl carving out a living entertaining the troops in the underground bomb shelters of burnt out London. In an awfully clunky screenwriting moment she sees a familiar face across a crowded pub and calls out “Dylan? Dylan Thomas?” and is reunited with her childhood sweetheart. After plenty of flirting, the soon-to-be great poet Thomas (Matthew Rhys) introduces her to his wife Caitlin (Sienna Miller) and a firm friendship begins, a friendship that veers in the direction of a (hinted at) ménage à trois and ends (with the help of Phillips’ shell-shocked husband Cillian Murphy) in a hail of misdirected bullets on a picturesque Welsh cliff top.
Miller’s notorious tabloid existence has a tendency to overshadow her day job, which is a shame as she is very good here and she carries almost all the emotional weight of a film that, frankly, needs all the help it can get. Rhys is fine (and reads the Thomas poetry like he’s channelling Richard Burton) but Knightley struggles, although she has her moments.
In The Orphanage, a woman (Belén Rueda) and her husband (Fernando Cayo) decide to buy the decaying old gothic orphanage where she grew up so they can live there with their adopted, HIV-positive, young son (Roger Princep) plus his imaginary friends. Asking for trouble? You bet. The boy soon disappears, perhaps into a cave beneath the house, and the distraught mother has to solve the mystery of the cursed house before she can find him again.
I would have been considerably more effected by this film if the first half hadn’t been out of focus (and if the projectionist hadn’t forgotten about the reel change or needed to be told to focus the second half) but once we’d got all that sorted out the moody atmospherics (greatly aided by an effective surround sound design and the excellent Paramount sound system) push all the right buttons. Produced by Guilermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), The Orphanage is stylish horror with a heart. I much prefer this sort of thing to the Japanese productionline versions we see so often.
It’s really saying something when a director disowns a Vin Diesel film for not living up to his vision but this is what Mathieu Kassovitz has done with Babylon A.D. Apparently studio-dictated cuts have turned his subtle and sensitive political and moral allegory into a bloodthirsty shoot ’em up. As they saying goes, yeah right. Freely ripping off dozens of hit films (from Escape from New York to Blade Runner, The Matrix and Resident Evil), the cuts have rendered what might have been a campy classic into incoherence but it’s not un-entertaining.
My favourite cinematic shark is Bruce from Finding Nemo (played by Barry Humphries), a misunderstood killing machine with abandonment issues. If he’d seen Rob Stewart’s enervating documentary Sharkwater he would know that he’s not a killer at all – more people die each year as a result of Coke machine misadventure – and that he is in far greater peril from us than the other way around.
In fact the whole film owes a lot to Pixar’s Nemo, often recreating famous images from that film and, if it wasn’t likely to traumatise them, I’d recommend every child who ever saw Nemo be forced to sit and watch it so they might turn into passionate eco-terrorists when they grow up.
As agit-prop doco makers go I think I prefer Morgan Spurlock to Michael Moore. Spurlock (who sprang to fame with the McDonalds’ exposé Super Size Me in 2004) interviews people without setting them up to look stupid or venal and his everyman open-ness gives the impression that he is genuinely curious rather than embittered and certain. In Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? Spurlock is spurred by the his long- suffering girlfriend Alex’s pregnancy to go the middle east and find out why they want to kill us all. And if he finds Osama Bin Laden in the process, all well and good. I could have done with less of the cheesy video game analysis of complex global politics but when Spurlock goes out of his way to meet ordinary people on the streets of Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, Pakistan and Afghanistan you can’t help but feel a little bit enlightened and a little bit heartened.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 8 October, 2008.
Nothing of note to report regarding screening conditions except the problems with The Orphanage that have already been reported above.
UPDATE: A friend wrote to me after reading the Sharkwater review in the CT:
“I don’t think much of your Sharkwater review. It really doesn’t tell anyone what the film is about and why people should see it, and secondly you totally belittle the issue by comparing it to a kids cartoon! It’s the most disturbing film I’ve seen all year, and as you know I’ve seen quite a lot. Even now I feel utterly guilty eating fish, though it is the only animal flesh I can’t seem to give up. At least the Lumiere reviewer urged people to boycott the many Wellington restaurants that serve shark fin soup. The director is slightly irritating I admit, but the content is crucial… you can’t joke about films like this, unless it’s garbage (like Where in the World is OBL for example…).
Back in 1984, Russell Mulcahy made Razorback, the tale of a giant mutant pig terrorising a small outback town, and his next film is going to be about a man turned into a koala by an ancient aboriginal curse, both of which make Resident Evil 3: Extinction look like Anna Karenina. You don’t need to have seen the previous two ResidentEvil films or played the video game (I hadn’t) as the plot is pretty simple: zombies = bad; supermodels = good; genetic engineering = very bad (unless you are genetically engineering supermodels which = very good). Stoic action-hero Milla Jovovich is photographed using the Chanel filter whenever she isn’t slicing up the un-dead and the film is entertaining when there’s action and tedious when there isn’t.
In Fracture, hotshot young actor Ryan Gosling plays a hotshot young Deputy DA, about to make the leap to a big-time corporate gig but first he has to convict Anthony Hopkins who has just shot his wife in the head. Now, IANAL but Fracture seems pretty shonky from a procedural and legal point of view. Can the LA County court system really send an attempted murderer to trial less than a fortnight after the offence? I doubt it, but that condensed time-frame is vital for Goslings’ character motivation and therefore the rest of the plot, so best to turn a blind-eye to the detail and focus on two great screen actors enjoying themselves.
Film of the week by some distance is Away From Her by the sublimely gifted Sarah Polley. In snowy Ontario Julie Christie is Fiona, a woman struggling with the onset of Alzheimers Disease. Husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent) seems to be struggling even more, however, and when she decides to go in to residential care he feels that, perhaps, he is being punished by her for past transgressions.
Christie is sensational but the revelation for me is Pinsent, a living legend in Canada but rarely seen elsewhere. His is an extraordinary performance, fully investing his character with all of the painful mash of love, loss and guilt that Polley’s eloquently spare script requires. His raw and confused emotions are not just etched in his craggy face but into his ever-moistening eyes.
Glenn Standring’s Perfect Creature is a respectable genre effort, although devoid of much originality. In a steampunk-flavoured alternative reality New Zealand, genetically engineered vampires known as Brothers control society via religion. When one of their order goes berko and starts eating citizens, the supposedly delicate balance between the species/races/whatever is threatened. Deputy Brother Silus (Dougray Scott) teams up with the cheekbones of Detective Lilly (Saffron Burrows) to bring the fiend to justice.
One of the most startling career re-inventions of recent times must belong to screenwriter Steven Knight who until 2002 was a TV hack best known for being Jasper Carrott’s chief gag-man and creator of Who Wants To be a Millionaire? The script for the excellent Dirty Pretty Things launched his feature career and he now delves even deeper in to the seedy underbelly of gangland London with Eastern Promises, starring Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts. Watts plays a London hospital midwife and (helpfully) daughter of a Russian. A young girl dies in childbirth on her watch but the diary she was carrying provides a clue to her identity and leads Watts to the Russian mafia kingpin (Armin Mueller-Stahl), his nutjob son (Vincent Cassell) and the son’s driver (Viggo). Director Cronenberg steers us through the murk effectively enough and there’s one thrilling set-piece in a turkish bath which confirms his talent for cinematic violence (if it was ever in doubt). Final irony: the three Russians are played by a German, a Frenchman and a Dane.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 31 October, 2007.
Notes on screening conditions: Away From Her was screened in Penthouse One and the shutter timing is still out and getting worse. There are also signs of damage to the screen (from something behind it?) on the right-hand side. It was also the most uncomfortable seat I have sat in this year. This is all a bit of a shame as Penthouse Three (the new one) is perfectly fine but it looks like standards aren’t being maintained everywhere.