It’s one of those rare sunny Saturday afternoons in Wellington and I have work to do. But I’m not going to do that work because it doesn’t look like much fun and — for once — writing tiny film reviews seems like the better option.
Leanne Pooley made New Zealand’s most successful documentary ever in 2009 — The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls — and now turns her eye towards a mountain-sized Kiwi icon, Sir Ed Hillary and his ascent of Everest in 1953. Beyond the Edge is a limp title for the greatest adventure ever undertaken by a New Zealander and the film sometimes seems a bit bloodless too. The 3D recreations of Himalayan scenes — filling in the gaps in the archive of available still and moving picture elements — are thrilling though, especially if heights get your heart racing faster as they do I.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a Black history lesson set in the White House, novelist Cormac McCarthy teams up with Ridley Scott to make a conundrum called The Counselor and we visit Kashmir to see the Valley of Saints.
This new Robin Hood is a prequel (or an origin story in the comic book parlance). On his way back from the Crusades with Richard the Lionheart, Robin Longstocking (sorry, Longstride) heads to Nottingham to return a sword. In Richard’s absence, England has fallen in to financial and political ruin and the French are plotting to fill the void with an army massing off the coast and spies in the court.
One of the Film Society highlights in recent years was the special screening (on lustrous 35mm) of the 70s classic thriller The Taking of Pelham One Two Three about the hijacking of a New York subway train. It was a wonderful experience for many different reasons – a cynical love letter to a decrepit, bankrupt and graffiti-covered city; an ordinary guy hero that audiences these days would never be allowed to accept (played by grizzled old Walter Matthau) and Robert Shaw (from Jaws and The Sting) chewing the scenery as the villain holding a city to ransom.
Thus my heart sank when the remake was announced, particularly the choice of stylist (over substance) Tony Scott as director. His recent films like Domino and Déjà Vu have been full of music video fanciness, giving his actors no room to breathe — he’s the Scott you get when you can’t have his brother Ridley.
Oh, what kind of year is 2008 that has two Coen Brothers films within it? In February I was swooning over No Country for Old Men and now, just a few short months later, I’ve been treated to Burn After Reading, a scathing and bitter comedy about modern American ignorance. It’s a vicious, savage, despairing and brilliant farce: full of wonderful characters who are at the same time really awful people.
John Malkovich is Osbourne Cox, a failed CIA analyst who loses a disk containing his memoirs. It’s found by Hardbodies gym staff Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt, who decide to blackmail him so that she can pay for some unnecessary cosmetic procedures. Meanwhile (and there’s a lot of meanwhiles), Malkovich’s wife (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with sex addict George Clooney, who is cheating on her, and his wife, with Internet one night stands (that include the lonely McDormand). The disk ends up at the Russian Embassy, Pitt ends up in the Chesapeake and the only truly nice person in the whole film ends up with a hatchet in his head.
It’s no accident that this collection of mental and spiritual pygmies can be found populating Washington D.C. Over the last eight years it has become the world centre of incompetence, venality, short-sightedness and political expedience and the film plays as an enraged satire about the end of the American Empire. We can only hope.
The self-indulgent partnership between Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe gets another trot out in Body of Lies, a laboured action-thriller about anti-terrorism in the Middle East. Half-decent Leonardo DiCaprio is the lead. He plays honourable field agent Roger Ferris, hunting the Osama-like Al Saleem from Iraq to Jordan via Amsterdam and Langley. Crowe spends most of the film coaching DiCaprio via cellphone and a good ole boy Southern accent. The twist in this film is that he is a boorish, ignorant, arrogant oaf who fails to appreciate that winning hearts and minds is essential to win the war on terror: DiCaprio’s character, an arabic speaker with an appreciation for the region and its people, is continually being hung out to dry by his bosses who simply don’t think the Middle East is worth anything more than the oil that lies beneath it.
Unfortunately for Body of Lies (a terrible, meaningless title), the whole film is thick with cliché and while Scott’s eye for a set-piece remains keen his ear for dialogue is still made of tin.
Another terrible nothing title (but for a better film) is The Duchess. A naive young Spencer girl is plucked from Althorp to marry a powerful older man. She soon finds that it is not a love match and that her emotionally closed off husband sees her as a baby factory while he enjoys life with his mistress. Our heroine uses her celebrity to bring attention to political causes and falls in love with a handsome young man, but happiness and freedom is always too far away. Sounds familiar, I know, but this story isn’t set in the 1990’s but in the 18th century and this Spencer isn’t Diana, but her eerily similar ancestor Georgiana (Keira Knightley).
Knightley is fine as the spirited, but eventually broken, young woman; Ralph Fiennes has good moments as the brutish Duke of Devonshire and Charlotte Rampling delivers another icy turn as Georgiana’s calculating mother. The Duchess is a fine history lesson with some nice observations: my favourite is the paparazzi at every social occasion, pencils sharpened to sketch the scandals as they unfold.
Sadly, I have been too busy in recent weeks to preview any of the titles in this year’s Italian Film Festival but the programme looks a good and interesting one as always. The films in the Italian Festival have always leaned towards the commercial and this year is no different. Crowd pleasing comedies like The Littlest Thing rub shoulders with romances like Kiss Me Baby, dramas (The Unknown Woman) and thrillers: Secret Journey. My pick looks like it could be a combination of all those genres, the romantic black comedy Night Bus. Moving to the Embassy this year should do the event the power of good but it’s a pity about the poorly proofed programme though.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 15 October, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: All three films were screened at the Empire in Island Bay. Body of Lies and The Duchess were at public screenings and Burn After Reading was the Sunday night print check (for staff), so thanks to the Empire people for inviting me to that.
2008 is shaping up to be a year of great films about people being beastly to each other and the first cab off the rank is Tim Burton’s majestic adaptation of Sondheim’s broadway opera Sweeney Todd. Based on the true-ish story of the Victorian barber who murders his customers to provide fresh meat for his girlfriend’s pies, Sweeney Todd is positively Shakespearian in scale – meaty, savage, sinister and poignant. Johnny Depp plays the talented scissor-man who returns to London 15 years after he was transported to the colonies by crooked Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) who had desires on his pretty wife. Consumed with a passion for revenge Todd goes back to work above the shop selling London’s worst pies, made by the redoubtable Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). There, more by accident than design, they discover that his skills with a razor might be profitable in more ways than one.
Sondheim’s music and lyrics are as good as any other writing for the stage in the last century and the film version honours that talent unconditionally. When young Toby (Ed Sanders) sings “Not While I’m Around” (probably the most beautiful song ever written) to Mrs Lovett you can see the look in her eyes that shows he has just sealed his own fate, the temperature in the theatre seemed to drop a few degrees. Not just anyone can pull that off.
The best of the rest at the moment is Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, a pacy and observant look at the life of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), Harlem’s most notorious and successful drug dealer of the 1970s. Russell Crowe plays Richie Roberts, the only honest cop in New York. It’s an interesting story well told by three charismatic film personalities.
After the Wedding is a lovely, layered drama from Denmark starring the watchable Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale) as an aid worker at an Indian orphanage who is summoned back to Copenhagen by a mysterious billionaire (Rolf Lassgård). Lassgård wants to donate enough money to save the programme – millions of dollars – but there are strings attached. Those strings turn out to be less nefarious than they seem at first but the choice that Mikkelsen’s Jacob has to make is still a heart-breaking one. Totally recommended.
Totally un-recommended is the Australian comedy-drama Clubland about an unusual showbiz family led by domineering mother Brenda Blethyn. Asinine in conception and horrible in execution, it struggles to get one good performance out the entire cast put together.
Death at a Funeral isn’t much better, although a couple of performances (Peter Dinklage and a doughy Matthew McFadyen) rise above the cheap and nasty script. The funeral is for McFadyen’s father and various friends and family members have assembled to form a quorum of English stereotypes. Standard farce elements like mistaken identity and accidental drug-taking are shoe-horned together with the help of some poo jokes.
Alien vs. Predator: Requiem managed to disappear from my memory about as soon as I left the theatre with my ears still ringing from the noise. An Alien pod being transported across the galaxy crash lands in Colorado and starts laying eggs – cause that’s just how they roll. A creature from the Predator home-world tries to clean up the mess and a whole bunch of random citizens get caught in the middle. All the signature moments from the original Alien (the chest-bursting, the almost-kissing a whimpering young woman) are repeated often, to diminishing effect and, I know I sometimes see cinematic racism everywhere, is it really necessary for both malevolent extra-terrestrial races to look like big black men with dreadlocks?
There’s a factory in China, I’m sure, stamping out films like Elsa & Fred on a weekly basis, making subtle cultural and generational changes where necessary but preserving the formula like it’s Coca Cola. And fair enough as these films will always sell: un-challenging, easy to decipher, vaguely life-affirming. Elsa (China Zorrilla) is a batty old woman in a Madrid apartment block. Fred (Manuel Alexandre) is the quiet widower who moves in opposite. She decides to point him back the direction of life and he tries to make her dreams come true before it is too late.
Finally, Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution is an extremely well-made but overlong erotic thriller set in Japanese-occupied China during WWII. Stunning newcomer Wei Tang plays Wong Chia Chi, persuaded in a moment of youthful, patriotic weakness to join a student resistance group. She is sent undercover to try and woo the mysterious Mr Yee (Tony Leung) who is a senior official collaborating with the Japanese occupation forces. Unfortunately, for them both he is interested but a challenging mark and it is several years before she can get close enough to him (and believe me she gets very close) for the resistance to strike. Ang Lee is the poet of the stolen glance and he is in very good form – I just wish it hadn’t taken quite so long to get going.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 23 January, 2008.
Nature of Conflict: After the Wedding is distributed in NZ and Australia by Arkles Entertainment who I do some work for; Clubland is distributed in Australia and NZ by Palace whose NZ activities are looked after by the excellent Richard Dalton, who is a good mate.
At present Reading Cinemas are not offering press passes to the Capital Times. This means that their exclusive releases (such as Cloverfield) will go un-reviewed unless I can work something out with them or the distributor. Maybe I’ll just download them …