You’ll often find me railing against the Hollywood machine in these pages — the lifeless and cynical, the focus-grouped and beta-tested, the bandwagon jumping and the shark jumping — so it makes a pleasant change to loudly praise a film whose strengths are a pure expression of old-fashioned Hollywood virtues.
Duplicity is a star-driven caper movie, featuring terrific easy-going performances by Julia Roberts and Clive Owen — playing two former spies now in the corporate security business. They team up to play their two clients off against each other for a secret formula that will change the world, and discover that big business plays for keeps.
Many years ago English comedian Ben Elton cracked a joke about Bob Dylan: “For all you young people in the audience he was the one who couldn’t sing on the end of the We Are The World video.” Nowadays we have to explain to young people what We Are The World was and Dylan has travelled even further away from relevance. So why is I’m Not There. (the full stop is part of the title) such essential viewing if Dylan seems so irrelevant?
Because unlike everyother 20th Century icon Dylan never cared what you think — he just followed his instincts and his interests and the film is an endlessly fascinating portrait of that battle to avoid becoming what his audience and his industry wanted him to become. Portrayed by six different actors including Cate Blanchett and Heath Ledger, Dylan’s many personas still keep you at arms length. I think the key to Dylan is that he is less complicated (and at the same time more complex) than the world would have you believe and he fully deserves a work of art as fine as this one in his name.
I should also point out that I was lucky enough to see I’m not There. in that most musical of locations, the Paramount and it sounded superb. A keeper.
Robert Downey Jr. is one of those movie brats who seems to have been born in front of a camera (check out his almost perfect performance as Chaplin for Richard Attenborough in 1992). He hasn’t been getting the lead roles he deserves (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was the last one) but Iron Man is surely going to change that. Downey Jr.‘s effortless screen charisma is the foundation of a highly entertaining action movie that is only let down by a not-quite-big-enough set-piece at the end. Billionaire and playboy arms manufacturer Tony Stark has his eyes opened to the evils his products enable when he is kidnapped in Afghanistan. After escaping, he decides to use his technology for good (while still having as much fun as possible). A good supporting cast (including Jeff Bridges looking like Daddy Warbucks) keeps things moving.
The funniest thing about Patrick Dempsey rom-com Made of Honour is that it was made by a company called Original Film. As if! Dempsey plays Tom, super-rich inventor of the coffee collar and serial-bedder of beautiful women. Too late he realises that he is actually in love with his best friend Hannah (Michelle Monaghan, this year’s Sandra Bullock) just as she is about to get married to Trainspotting’s Kevin McKidd in a Scottish castle. Pretty much all the characters are deeply shallow and pretty unlikeable which I’m sure wasn’t the intention and, most annoying of all, director Paul Weiland gives himself the auteur credit of “A Film By”. In your dreams, pal.
Much more successful, and not coincidentally populated with much nicer people, is Dan in Real Life starring Steve Carell as author of a popular newspaper parenting tips column who has much more difficulty parenting his actual children (alone, due to that all-too-common conceit of a widow-hood). So far, so un-promising, but Dan in Real Life really wins you over with smart writing and lovely, understated performances from a terrific ensemble. Lonely Dan is taking his brood of daughters to a multi-generational family get together in rugged Rhode Island. He meets beautiful and alluring Juliette Binoche and they fall in love, just before finding out that she is his brother’s new girlfriend. Testing times around the dinner table ensue, mostly comic but never far away from deeply heartfelt. Frankly, more films should be like this.
How About You is one of those films where, I confess, my taste and the taste of mainstream New Zealanders diverges somewhat. Ellie, played by Hayley Atwell (star of the unnecessarily forthcoming new version of Brideshead Revisited), is forced by circumstance to help her sister care for a group of unruly clients (a dream cast including Vanessa Redgrave, Brenda Fricker and Joss Ackland) in an Irish elderly residential home so beautiful it makes Malvina Major look like Alcatraz. Left alone with them at Christmas, she manages to transform all of them into saintly paragons of maturity via alcohol and non-prescribed drugs. I barely tolerated this but if you are over 70 you might get a kick out of it — the people behind me who talked all the way through certainly did.
The Human Rights Film Festival kicks off it’s 2008 season at the Paramount on Thursday evening. While most of these films don’t really qualify as cinema per se, this is still an important opportunity to see the world as it is absolutely not portrayed through the commercial media. Highlights for me include Occupation 101, a crystal-clear examination of the reality of life in occupied Palestine, and Now The People Have Awoken, another perspective on Chavez’s Venezuela which will be of particular interest if you have seen Pilger’s War on Democracy. There are seven shorter items on the programme too: I’m looking forward to seeing Bowling for Zimbabwe about a young boy who needs a cricketing scholarship in order to escape the man-made atrocity of Mugabe’s grinding poverty.
Notes on screening conditions: I already mentioned how good I’m Not There. sounded at the Paramount during the Showcase. I don’t know whether it is the shape of the room or the PA speakers behind the screen but music cinema has always sounded sensational in there. Iron Man was, like Transformers last year, at a busy public screening at the Embassy which looked and sounded great. Standing ovation from a few fanboys, too. Made of Honour looked perfectly acceptable at the Empire. I am not allowed to tell you where I saw Dan in Real Life as they made me sign an NDA before they would let me in there. No shit! But it was amazing. The print had seen better days but had been given a spruce up by our hosts. How About You was ruined by it being a not very good film but the incessant talking by the old biddies behind me and the annoying hair in the gate finished me off. Penthouse.
Like a cross between a bloodthirsty B‑movie and something off the National Geographic channel, New Zealand feature The Tattooist struggles to marry the chills and thrills of a stylish low-budget horror film, with a sensitive introduction to Samoan culture, but comes very close to pulling it off.
Jake Sawyer (Jason Behr) is a troubled American tattoo artist, travelling the world ripping-off traditional designs. He ends up in Auckland with a stolen tattooing tool which has unleashed an evil spirit. Is it punishing Jake for his dishonesty or is there something else going on?
Not all of it works, of course — detailed plot exposition is very tricky to pull off during a fist-fight — but, for the most part, I enjoyed it.
Talking of B‑movies, Sandra Bullock’s new thriller Premonition deserves a place somewhere further down the alphabet. Sandy plays a self-absorbed housewife whose husband dies in a car accident. She wakes up the following day to find that it isn’t the following day at all, but three days prior and husband Julian McMahon is still alive. Believing that she has just had a bad dream, she wakes up the following morning to find that it is now the day of the funeral and one of her daughters has terrible recent scars on her face.
This could all be promising mystery material if it wasn’t for the clunky and obvious way the clues are laid out which makes it seem like The Sixth Sense remade for Sesame Street. But even that wouldn’t be too disastrous it wasn’t for an ending that is so breathtakingly inane that this reviewer found himself hating the film for that element alone. Premonition will end up getting a decent life on video but I can’t help thinking that it will disappoint everyone who rents it.
In Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress, a cast full of well-known television faces is gathered together in a Southern fable about living life to the full, or some rubbish like that. Keri Russell (“Felicity”) plays pie-witch Jenna Hunterson, trapped in a marriage to boorish Jeremy Sisto (“Six Feet Under”) and a dead-end job in Joe’s Pie Shack (owned by “Matlock” himself, Andy Griffith). Her only escape is her talent for pies and, possibly, handsome Dr Pomatter (Nathan Fillion from “Firefly”). As inoffensive as vapour and about as substantial.
If ever a documentary needed the help of Michael Moore it is A Crude Awakening, a deeply depressing examination of the world’s dependence on oil (total), the likelihood of it running out this century (high) and what we can do about it (not much). It’s a hugely important subject but the presentation is as dry as dust which will prevent the message from getting very far. Besides, the inescapable conclusion is that an oil-free society will require a reduction in the world’s population by around 4.5 billion people meaning unimaginable misery for those left behind, and who wants to hear that?
Meanwhile, the vital and engaging Date Palm Film Festival gets a fifth run out at the Paramount. One great example: Fireworks Wednesday is a first-rate drama about a young girl in Teheran, about to be married, who goes to work as a maid for a middle-class family and discovers that the grown-up world of marriage has many surprises in store.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 5 September 2007.
Full disclosure: Screenwriters of The Tattooist, Jonathan King and Matthew Grainger, were both judges for the Wellington 48 Hour Film Competition this year; I have been an unpaid consultant on the Date Palm Film Festival since the beginning, though never involved with programming.
Notes on screening conditions: The Tattooist was an early Thursday morning commercial screening at Readings and I did miss the first ten minutes due to confusion on my part over start times; Premonition was at the same venue about an hour and a half later; Waitress was at the Penthouse on Monday evening (staff screening); A Crude Awakening was screened off a very high quality time-coded DVD on Sunday night at home; Fireworks Wednesday was also a time-coded DVD preview screener viewed after getting home from Waitress on Monday night.