Following up on the 2009 surprise hit The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky has offered us another film about people who destroy themselves for our entertainment — this time in the rarefied world of ballet. Tiny Natalie Portman is plucked from the chorus of the fictional but prestigious New York City Ballet for the dream role of the Swan in a hot new production. It’s the chance of a lifetime but her fragile psychology shows through in her performance even though her dancing is technically perfect. Maestro Vincent Cassel tries to reconstruct her — as you would a first year drama school student — while domineering stage mother Barbara Hershey is pushing back in the other direction. Something has to break and it does.
Black Swan is exceptionally well made, beautiful and challenging to watch — and Portman’s performance is nothing short of amazing — but films that aspire to greatness need to be about something more than, you know, what they’re about and once I’d decoded was going on I couldn’t see enough under the surface to justify the hype.
I got some feedback on this column the other day. Apparently I “write well” but I “don’t like much”. Perhaps I am a little jaded after four and a half years in these pages but I am pleased to report that this weekend I saw five films on your behalf and enjoyed all of them. Yes, all of them.
In the first scene of The American, George Clooney does something so un-Clooney-like that audience members beside me audibly gasped. He plays a hit-man who might be called Jack or Edward but is probably neither.
After narrowly escaping an attempt on his own life he holes up in picturesque Castel del Monte in the mountains of central Italy. As a single-minded professional with no ties, Jack could be the brother of Clooney’s corporate assassin in Up in the Air and like that film it takes unexpected feelings for a beautiful woman to make him realise how empty his life is.
Directed by famous photographer Anton Corbijn (The Joshua Tree etc), every frame of The American is luscious and perfectly composed, Mr. Clooney makes this stuff look easy and if you’re in the market for a quality Euro-art-house Bourne-type thriller then look no further.
We’re born alone and we die alone and in between nothing goes according to plan and the people around us are mostly unreliable and occasionally malevolent. Meanwhile, God either doesn’t exist or is indifferent to our suffering. Either way, A Serious Man, the new film by the prodigiously gifted Coen Brothers, is a very serious film. It is also a very funny one.
In a mid-west University town in the late 60s, Physics Professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) has a happy family, a great career and a beautiful house in a nice neighbourhood. Actually, he has none of those things. His wife (Sari Lennick) has fallen for smooth-talking Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) and needs a Get (a formal Jewish divorce), his daughter wants a nose job, his son is preparing for his bar mitzvah by smoking dope and listening to rock music and his unsuccessful brother (the great Richard Kind) is sleeping on the couch and draining his cyst in the bathroom. At the same time, the tenure committee at the University is receiving anonymous complaints and his white-bread, red-neck neighbours are mowing their lawns in a particularly threatening way.
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.
Computer programmers have a concept called ‘garbage collection’ whereby useless and redundant items are automatically disposed of by ‘the system’. We film reviewers don’t have access to such technology, however, and are responsible for tidying our own rooms so, while all sensible cinephiles have their attention focused on the Festival, this column is playing catch-up with the commercial releases still playing in your local cineplex.
First up is Will Smith’s traditional 4th July epic, Hancock. All the major distributors know to steer well clear of Independence Day weekend as Smith totally ‘owns’ but that grip may loosen after his latest effort left many underwhelmed. But, what’s that you say? $453m worldwide gross? He turns out to be absolutely critic proof and I feel even more redundant than usual.
As a Smith admirer, I was terribly let down by Hancock. A promising first two acts in which the eponymous superhero-bum seeks redemption under the guidance of PR flack Jason Bateman turns to custard in a final third that seems to have been made up as they went along with poor Charlize Theron having to explain the nonsense plot in an embarrassing extended monologue over a hospital bed containing a dying Hancock. Total balderdash.
Although, not as awful as Meet Dave in which Eddie Murphy plays a spaceship that looks like Eddie Murphy, piloted by Eddie Murphy, walking stiffly around Manhattan looking for a lost orb that will steal all of Earth’s seawater and save the home planet. As bad as it sounds, if not worse.
Much more fun, though very messy, is Mamma Mia!, the star-studded tribute to ABBA and platforms that, in it’s musical theatre incarnation, has romped around the stages of the world for nearly ten years. On a Greek island, Meryl Streep is preparing for her daughter’s wedding not realising that said daugter (Amanda Seyfried) has invited all three of her possible fathers (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard). All the ABBA hits are performed with considerable karaoke-style energy from the mostly non-singers and Streep provides a lesson for the likes of Robert De Niro that when you take on a frothy commercial comedy you don’t have to leave your talent in your trailer.
Finally, let us praise director Jay Roach who it would appear (on the evidence of Mike Myers’ new “comedy” The Love Guru) was the real talent behind the Austin Powers movies. Somebody with the unlikely name of Marco Schnabel directs this one and Myers produces, co-writes and stars in this facile vanity project about a self-help spiritualist who tries to become the new Deepak Chopra by saving the marriage of a star ice hockey player (Romany Malco) so he can then lead his team to “Stanley’s Cup”. The most diverting thing about this miss and miss affair is wondering why the Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t called the Toronto Maple Leaves — a mystery on a par with how this putrid and insulting effort ever got off the ground in the first place.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 23 July, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: Hancock was at the Embassy. So was Mamma Mia! which was not done any favours by a damaged digital soundtrack on the print supplied by Paramount — very disappointing for a worldwide day & date release. Meet Dave was screened by the lovely people at the Empire in Island Bay. The Love Guru was only on at Readings in Wellington and they don’t supply media with comp tickets. Normally, I would work around that by seeing a film with Graeme Tuckett of the Dominion Post (or, hell, even borrowing his pass on occasion) but this time that wasn’t feasible with the Festival kicking off at the same time. So, I’m ashamed to say I downloaded it. Yes, I torrented a file that had originally been a preview DVD supplied by Paramount Pictures, with the watermark pixellated out. I would apologise except I’m waiting for Mike Myers to apologise to me first for making me watch it. And by the way, torrenting ain’t free — The Love Guru would have cost me a couple of bucks for the bandwidth and it wasn’t worth that.
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.