Firstly, I need to apologise for the infrequency of updates. Real world work has intervened. The result is that this collection of reviews will be even more cursory than usual.
Ron Howard’s Rush is a great showcase for Chris Hemsworth (Thor) to prove that he has some potential beyond the comic book beefcake. He plays British playboy racing driver James Hunt with a perfect languid English accent and a rock star twinkle just failing to hide his understandable insecurities. Daniel Brühl as his on-track nemesis Niki Lauda also does a creditable job of making an unattractive character appealing. Downsides are that the film is about 20 minutes too long and it’s the first 20 minutes that you could easily lose. Peter Morgan’s script is – unusually for him – very by-the-numbers until the inciting incident occurs after the halfway stage, also kicking Howard’s direction into gear.
Blancanieves was reportedly Roger Ebert’s final favourite film, added to his own festival earlier this year after only a handful of screenings. As usual, Mr. Ebert’s taste did not let him down and the film should win over lovers of classic cinema at least. Much closer to a genuine silent picture than Oscar-winner The Artist’s pastiche, Blancanieves resets the Snow White legend to 1920s Spain with a background of bullfighting and intrigue. It’s luscious to look at and as romantic as any of the great vintage silents that inspired it, although viewers with lower tolerance for melodrama and arch, high intensity performances may struggle to buy in.
It’s clear that there are two kinds of people in the world. There are the people who get Harry Potter (not just get but devour, savour, relish) and then there’s, you know, me.
Over the last six years I have doggedly tried to review the HP franchise as if it was cinema, as if there might be viewers tempted along who hadn’t been exposed to the books and who might reasonably be expecting to watch a film that stands on its own two feet.
Well, to coin a phrase, “it all ends” now. I give up. With Harry Potter, you can’t divorce your response from your expectations. If you loved the books it would appear that you love the films and the less attention the filmmakers pay to unbelievers like me the better you like it.
Genius filmmaker Mike Leigh has been on a bit of an up and down streak in recent years. 2002’s All or Nothing was wonderful, Vera Drake (2004) I found frustratingly unwatchable and, most recently, Happy-Go-Lucky seemed too thin – beneath his significant talents – and yet, despite not liking it very much, I find myself thinking about Happy-Go-Lucky quite often. And that’s Leigh’s skill – he gets under your skin even when you resist.
Another Year is his latest film and it’s terribly good. It’s Secrets and Lies good, that good, despite having no plot to speak of. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen (Leigh regulars) play Tom and Gerri, a happily married couple who seem to be surrounded by people who simply aren’t as good at coping with life – Lesley Manville’s Mary, a highly strung, alcoholic, work colleague of Sheen’s who turns up to embarrass herself in their kitchen periodically; Tom’s old university buddy Ken played by Peter Wight (overweight, depressed, lonely, also alcoholic); Tom’s taciturn widower brother Ronnie (David Bradley). They all drift into and out of Tom and Gerri’s welcoming suburban kitchen while tea is made and drunk and banalities are spoken.
You can forget all talk of an Oscar for Heath Ledger’s Joker. If anyone is going to win an Academy Award for wearing some dodgy make-up in a noisy blockbuster no one is getting in the way of Robert Downey Jr. for Tropic Thunder. Totally believable, every second, as Kirk Lazarus, the Australian method actor (and multi-Oscar winner himself) who undergoes a radical skin re-pigmentation in order to portray tough-as-nails African-American Sgt. Osiris in the eponymous Vietnam epic, Downey Jr’s performance is a thing of wonder: A masterpiece of technique, timing, self-belief and dare I say it, soul. I’m still chuckling days later.
Lazarus is one of a handful of pampered Hollywood stars on location to recreate the last great untold Vietnam story – the suicide-mission rescue of “Four Leaf” Tayback during the legendary “Wet” Offensive of ’69. Under pressure from the studio to get back on schedule (and from handless “Four “Leaf” himself, Nick Nolte, to toughen the pencil-kneck panty-waists up a bit) director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) goes verité. With the help of hidden cameras, special effects and some heavily armed South East Asian drug lords, Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) and Alpa Chino (relative newcomer Brandon T. Jackson) find themselves up to their eyeballs in reality. Comedy reality, which is the best kind. One of my favourite films of the year so far, and I haven’t even mentioned Tom Cruise’s dancing.
Compared to the ferocious energy of Tropic Thunder, Tina Fey’s Baby Mama seems like a comedy from a different era. Fey plays über-clucky Kate Holbrook – successful middle-manager in Steve Martin’s organic produce company. Desperate for progeny (yet strangely single), her T shaped tubes make her a poor bet for IVF and the waiting list for adoption is years long. Surrogacy is her only solution and she barely bats an eyelid at the $100k price tag (she must share John McCain’s accountant). Despite the amount of money changing hands it is the surrogate that interviews the, what’s the word, surrogatee and she successfully passes the aura test posed by white trash “host” Amy Poehler (Blades of Glory).
The lively Poehler kick-starts every scene she is in while better-known stars like Martin, Greg Kinnear and Sigourney Weaver phone in their performances. Meanwhile Fey (“30 Rock”) is likeable enough, although the character seems to be in a world of her own most of the time, and Romany Malco from The Love Guru plays the token black character – a servant. Baby Mama is funnier, the more pregnancy-specific it gets. When it goes generic (speech-impediments, Martin’s new age schtick) it misses even the biggest targets by miles.
Paris is both the subject and the object of Cédric Klapisch’s ensemble drama about a cross-section of modern Parisian society. Romain Duris and Juliette Binoche are siblings, single, on the cusp of 40 and alienated from their parents. Duris is told his heart condition may finish him off sooner rather than later and mopes around the apartment, feeling sorry for himself while Binoche (like women everywhere) puts her own life on hold to care for him and her three children. Meanwhile, hangdog academic Fabrice Luchini (Intimate Strangers) has a crush on his beautiful student Mélanie Laurent, his architect brother is about to become a father but can’t stop crying. At street level, the market stallholders are also looking for love in the big city but have a more direct way of going about finding it.
I’ve made it seem a lot more contrived than it actually plays out. The direction is subtle and the performances are involving. It does suffer from the usual French cinematic philosophy, that working class experience is somehow more real than the self-absorbed bourgeois middle classes, but actually argues its case pretty well.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 28 August, 2008.
Hilary Swank’s new twin-hanky romance P.S., I Love You is a remarkable achievement. In all my years of cinema-going I don’t think I have ever seen a film get more wrong. From the clunky premise to the ghastly costume design; through awkward reverses in tone plus no small amount of self-indulgence on the part of Swank; it is as if everyone involved (when faced with a choice between the right way and the wrong way) simply flipped a coin and it came up “wrong” every time.
Swank plays New York widow Holly Kennedy, whose Irish husband Gerry (300’s Gerard Butler) dies of a brain tumour following a scene demonstrating how powerful and tempestuous their romance is. Shortly after the wake, Holly starts receiving letters from Gerry, written before he died in order to coach her through the grief and help her start again. As if.
One of the letters includes tickets to Ireland for Holly and her best friends so she can revisit the scene of their first meeting (prompting an intolerably banal flashback scene). Meanwhile supporting cast Gina Gershon and Lisa Kudrow can enjoy the natives tooraloo-ing in that way that only the Hollywood Irish can.