Strathmore’s finest son, Russell ‘Rusty’ Crowe, has been around film sets and worked alongside good, average and bad directors now for nearly 25 years, so it comes as no surprise to find that good, average and bad habits have rubbed off on him when it comes to his turn in the director’s chair.
As an actor, he has been most successful when subtlety is eschewed and grand gestures and emotions are called for — the angry skinhead in Romper Stomper, Oscar-winning Maximus in Gladiator, conjuring up a good performance despite an average singing voice in Les Misérables‚and saving the world with the voice of God in his head in Noah earlier this year. Even my favourite Crowe performance, the gay son in the poignant 1994 Australian drama The Sum of Us, had a heart as big as, they say, a whale.
This big-heartedness is the great strength of Crowe’s directorial debut, The Water Diviner, the story of a grieving father searching for what remains of his sons, who he allowed to enlist and then be all but obliterated on the unforgiving coast of the Dardanelles. This is an Anzac story, and it couldn’t be better timed with our attention turned once again to those who fought and died for us a hundred years ago.
Another strength of Crowe’s film — and the original script by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios — is that it never lets us forget that two sides were sacrificing their young men on those cliffs. The Turks, who during the story are helping the British and Anzacs locate the remains of the dead on the hillside at the same time as preparing to defend their homeland once again from the Greeks on another front, lost as many as the Allies, and their story is usually a sideshow in these things. The performances by Yilmaz Erdogan and Cem Yilmaz — as Turkish officers with mixed motivations in aiding the bereaved Victorian farmer — help restore that balance somewhat.
The Water Diviner is not without evidence of those bad habits, though. An ill-advised romantic sub-plot with a Turkish widow (played by Russian beauty Olga Kurylenko) detracts from the solidly anti-war, yet courageously metaphysical, main story. The Water Diviner, on a relatively low budget, also manages to help me forget the wobbly rubber bayonets of the sole New Zealand feature on this subject, Dale Bradley’s deeply flawed 1992 adaptation of Maurice Shadbolt’s Once on Chunuk Bair.
(Originally printed in the Dec/Jan issue Wellington’s FishHead magazine.)
As I sit here typing, I can hear the sounds of a Wellington summer all around me — the rain pouring on to the deck outside and the wind howling through the trees. Is this why local film distributors release so much product over the Christmas/New Year period? Perhaps it’s just climate and nothing to do with the Oscars at all? Anyhow, here’s a quick summary of what’s been dished out at local cinemas in descending order of greatness.
First up, Ang Lee’s glowing 3D adaptation of Yann Martell’s Life of Pi, storming the local box offices and deservedly so. Ravishing to look at — and making profound rather than novelty use of the extra depth available — Lee’s film manages to distil the essence of the book’s message even if the ambiguous ending proves less satisfying cinematically than literarily. Dreamy. I was particularly taken by the conscious recreation of the book’s original cover in one scene, even to the extent of changing the film’s aspect ratio for that single shot.
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.
With the big budget Hollywood remake already in production (starring Rusty Crowe), Anything for Her looked like it might have had some entertainment potential but I’m sad to report that it never gets up to speed.
The blissful lives of school teacher Julien (Vincent Lindon) and Lisa (Diane Kruger) are, as they say, shattered when Lisa is wrongly convicted of murder. With no possibility of legal redress, and a rapidly deteriorating mental state, it looks like Diane won’t be able to stand 20 years in the big house and Julien has to act to save her and the family – the two of them plus cute little Oscar played by the wonderfully named Lancelot Roch.
Somewhat implausibly, Julien hatches a plan to boost his Mrs from jail and escape the country to somewhere with no extradition. Despite no previous criminal experience, Julien obsesses over all the details until his plan comes together. Advice from a local criminal turned author (“don’t improvise if you don’t have the criminal mindset”) has to be ignored when circumstances change suddenly.
I can see this working with Crowe (and Elizabeth Banks and Liam Neeson). These sorts of tales told by Hollywood are always barely a step away from pure fantasy and it’s much easier to get carried along by the hokum. The French version is so grounded in a recognisable reality that the plot and characters don’t make any sense at all. Lindon is a great actor. He’s soulful, ruggedly good looking, and deeply intense but, paradoxically, the more real he tries to make the character the less you can believe what’s going on. Because it’s preposterous.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 28 April, 2010.
Australia (Evidently, modern Australia was built on racism, bigotry, corruption and alcohol). Not the debacle that some media would have you believe, Straya is an old-fashioned epic that looks right at home on the big Embassy screen. If only Baz Luhrman the director had more confidence in Luhrman the writer, he might have avoided some of the more OTT moments by letting a good story tell itself. The film also suffers from a lack of Russell Crowe (not something you can say all that often). A rougher, nastier performance would have suited the character of the Drover better but might also provoked something a little less simpering from Nicole Kidman. Hugh Jackman is a fine enough actor (and is necessarily Australian), he’s just tragically miscast.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt is born old and grows physically younger all the while touching the lives of the people around him). Other commentators have already made the obvious comparisons between Benjamin Button and Forrest Gump, but the disappointment I felt on leaving the theatre was palpable. Despite the evident technical mastery on display and a winning performance by Brad Pitt, the film falls well short of its own expectations, in fact I would argue that Yes Man is actually more profound.
Yes Man(Jim Carrey finds love and fulfilment by not saying “no”). Proves that achieving modest aims is often more satisfying than falling short with more ambitious projects. The presence of Rhys Darby adds half a star and the wonderful Zooey Deschanel adds a whole extra one. Great indie soundtrack too.
Bolt (TV hero dog discovers he doesn’t actually have super powers). The most fun of the holidays can be found by slipping on the Readings’ polarized 3D glasses and enjoying the Disney cartoon romp Bolt. Unlike the lead-footed Desperaux, Bolt zips along with plenty of visual and verbal panache. The 3D isn’t too gimmicky and does the job of bringing you into the film (or if you prefer, making everyone else in the theatre disappear).
The Tale of Desperaux (big-eared mouse rescues Princess, saves kingdom). On Sunday the morning, of those queued at the Empire in Island Bay 100% of the kids chose Bolt, 100% of the reviewers chose The Tale of Desperaux and the kids got the better part of the deal. Alone in the cinema I killed time by trying to work out which actor’s voice I was listening to: anyone know what William H. Macy sounds like?
Waltz with Bashir (war veteran interviews old buddies to try and remember a suppressed past). The best film of the holidays actually opened before the break but after my last deadline of the old year. An animated exploration of one of the many Israeli wars against their neighbours and the tricks played by memory, WWB has many images that linger in the mind, ready to re-emerge whenever I see a newspaper headline about the current situation in Gaza.
The Spirit (rookie cop is brought back to life with an eye for the ladies). You won’t have seen a film quite like The Spirit before, not one that was any good at least. A cross between the stark, CGI-noir of Sin City with the corny humour of the 60s Batman, if you’ve ever wanted to see Samuel L. Jackson camping it up in full Nazi regalia this is the film for you. For the rest of us, not so much.
Bedtime Stories (Hotel handyman’s stories for his nephew and niece come true the next day). The need for a PG rating cramps Adam Sandler’s style somewhat and the money the producers obviously saved on cinematography went on some class Brit-actors including Richard Griffiths and Jonathan Pryce.
Twilight (Tale of a teenage girl arriving in a new town, befriended by, and then falling in love with, the local vampire). Evidently the Twilight young-adult novels are some kind of phenomenon but I was more than mildly diverted by the cinematic version. I liked the sense of place (the cold and rainy Pacific North West) and the lack of urgency about the story-telling — taking its own sweet time. The fact that the primary relationship is between an adolescent girl and a 100-year-old man (no matter how beautiful and young-looking) did manage to creep me out though, more so than the ‘cradle-snatching’ in Benjamin Button.
Frost/Nixon (Famous interview saves Frost’s career and finishes Nixon’s). A film of primary interest to 70s conspiracy theory buffs and actors looking for a masterclass. Frank Langella does Richard M. Nixon perfectly despite bearing little resemblance to the real person and Michael Sheen and Rebecca Hall add to their growing reputations. The Frost/Nixon interviews had plenty of drama of their own but this film pads it all out with events and conversations that didn’t happen.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Gap year American girls find love in Catalonia). There was a time when the name Woody Allen was a guarantee of high-brow quality and it’s a sign of the times that the excellent Vicky Cristina Barcelona is being sold to the public with no mention of his name at all. As it turns out VCB is pretty damn fine — a witty and intelligent script that plays out like a deftly dramatised New Yorker short story.
The Dinner Guest (Simple couple turn posh to impress the new Boss). The French movies we get here seem to be more obsessed with class than anything from England and The Dinner Guest is no exception. The twist in this case is that our heroes are so uncultured they could be, I don’t know, English. Betrays its stage origins so much so I might have been watching it at Circa.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 14 January, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: I am pleased to report that everything was well presented (the print for Vicky Cristina Barcelona might have been a little too rough for the big Embassy screen). The digital 3D Bolt had some strange masking issues which nobody at Readings could explain to me, and I only noticed during the closing credits so no de-merit points apply.
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.