Between its heralded US release in September last year and its arrival in a (very) limited number of New Zealand cinemas this weekend, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master seems to have been transformed from masterpiece and annointed Best Picture contender to also-ran, disappointing scores of local PTA fans in the process, many of whom were crushed that we weren’t going to see the film in the director’s preferred 70mm format. Turns out it was touch and go whether we were going to see it on the big screen at all.
Anderson’s previous film, There Will Be Blood, was a close-run second to No Country For Old Men in my 2007 pick of the year, and his back catalogue is as rich as anyone else of his generation — Boogie Nights, Magnolia and even Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love. Like Blood, The Master is painted on a big canvas. Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, an alcoholic and self-hating WWII veteran, stumbling between misadventures when he stows away on the San Francisco yacht commanded by academic, author and mystic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd combines rudimentary psychotherapy with hypnosis to persuade gullible followers that their past lives can be used to transform their disappointing present.
As usual, the vagaries of holiday deadlines mean that, just as you are arriving back at work to gleefully greet the New Year, here I am to tell you all about 2012. The best way to use this page is to clip it out, fold it up and put it in your pocket ready for your next visit to the video shop — that way you won’t go wrong with your renting. Trust me — I’m a professional.
But this year I have a problem. Usually I manage to restrict myannualpicks to films that were commercially released to cinemas. I’ve always felt that it wasn’t fair to mention films that only screened in festivals — it’s frustrating to be told about films that aren’t easy to see and it makes it difficult for you to join in and share the love. This year, though, if I take out the festival-only films the greatness is hard to spot among the only “good”.
As usual, I have eschewed a top ten in favour of my patented categories: Keepers, Watch Again, Mentioned in Dispatches and Shun At All Costs. In 2012, only two of my nine Keepers (films I wish to have close to me forever) made it into commercial cinemas and one of them isn’t even really a film.
Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire was my film of the year for 2009 — a potent and punchy roller-coaster ride of a film that made everything for months afterwards seem quaintly old-fashioned. His new film, 127 Hours, doesn’t break the mould to quite the same degree but does feature similar stylistic effects: messing with time and structure, split-screens, domineering soundtrack, etc.
The new film is also an adaptation of previously existing material, Aron Ralston’s memoir “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”, and once again Boyle has collaborated with screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (notorious in New Zealand for The Full Monty). Ralston (played by James Franco) was an engineer by trade but an outdoorsman by inclination and he loved to roam the Utah canyons on bike and on foot. In 2003 he fall into a narrow ravine and his right arm was trapped by a boulder. He was there for five days before realising that the only way he was going to walk out was if he left the arm behind.
After Slumdog Millionaire last week, everything seems kind of old-fashioned. At any other time a film like Milk would stand out from the crowd as an example of quality, thoughtful, serious story-telling. This week, though, it seemed pedestrian, predictable and, frankly, a little straight.
Harvey Milk was a gay activist in San Francisco at a time when the gay community’s few human rights were under threat from the reactionary right. But Milk (played with his usual humility by the great Sean Penn) was a passionate advocate for personal freedom and a cunning politician who made clever and vital alliances across the political spectrum. The one alliance he failed to make (because he had no way of foreseeing that Supervisor Dan White’s mental instability would take so tragic a form) ended up being the one that killed him and it’s ironic that Milk wasn’t assassinated because of his sexuality or his ideas — but because of petty political jealousy.
Valkyrie is the latest release from Tom Cruise’s own United Artists company and it fascinates me the choices he makes when he’s essentially pleasing himself rather than meeting the expectations of the public. Cruise plays Von Stauffenberg, wounded German WWII hero with a conscience. He (along with what looks like a Pirates of the Caribbean reunion of great British actors) decide that to save Germany, and secure an early peace with the Allies, Hitler must be disposed of. Director Bryan Singer seems a lot more comfortable building subtle tension here than with the bombast of Superman Returns, and Cruise is pleasingly un-Cruise-like – no grandstanding or cheesy grins here.
What I found most interesting about Valkyrie is the portrait of the Nazi bureaucracy — a paper-shuffling, form-filling nightmare; a perfect environment for an ambitious paranoiac to thrive and beyond even a dedicated team of traitors to overturn.
Clint Eastwood’s Changeling also shares the subtext of dehumanising bureaucracy, but his storytelling compass is way off this time. Angelina Jolie plays an honest single-mom in 1920’s Los Angeles. Her young son disappears and the corrupt and venal LAPD decide the first stray kid they find is hers and then demonise and victimise her when she complains. What starts out as a thrillingly unbelievable story loses its way early on and by the time we get to the court room the narrative drive has all but fizzled out – and that’s only the end of the second act.
The richly detailed evocation of the period is an undeniable pleasure which means there is always something to look at (for some of you that might even be the skeletal Angelina), even while you are wishing the film would just hurry up and finish.
During last year’s Film Festival I unfortunately fell asleep during Tomas Alfredson’s atmospheric Swedish vampire story Let the Right One In but I subsequently heard many great things about it so I thought I’d give it another go this weekend. Guess what? It did it again — out like a light. There must be something hypnotic that happens about 20 minutes in as I lost consciousness at exactly the same point as before. Even after waking up, I found I couldn’t get enthusiastic about a film that seems to take forever to get anywhere and, unforgivably, feels much longer than it is.
Also from the Festival, but keeping one very much awake, was Steve McQueen’s Hunger (winner of the Camera D’or at Cannes last year for best first film). McQueen is (literally) a visual artist and now a heavyweight filmmaker. In pure art-house style it elliptically tells the story of the IRA hunger strikers of the early 80s who fought to be recognised as political prisoners while Thatcher’s government refused to acknowledge their legitimacy. It’s heavy (about as heavy as you get these days) but brilliant.
Sparkle is an inessential comedy drama about a naïve young scouser making his way through London, meeting interesting characters and finding love. It’s made by Tom Hunsinger & Neil Hunter who six years ago made the well-liked Lawless Heart . Unfortunately, this is a backward step with none of that film’s narrative cleverness and characters that are sketched rather than painted.
Even that’s better than the half-arsed Sex Drive which is Exhibit A in my current case against the culture. Decent young Ian (Josh Zuckerman) can’t get laid so borrows his brother’s pristine red GTO to drive across country to visit a ‘sure thing’ he met on the Internet. Even the soppy ‘friends forever’ ending is cynical. These sorts of films (Role Models is another example) used to be made by indies for drive-ins and the exploitation came from the gut (if not the heart). Now they’re part of a studio portfolio and are made by hacks rather than mavericks.
Printed (for the most part) in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 11 February, 2009.
Notes on screening conditions: Milk was a public screening at the Lighthouse in Petone where I witnessed a new low in audience talking-through-the-movie behaviour. Gah! Valkyrie was at the Empire in Island Bay where (unusually for them) I had to go out and ask them focus it. The auditorium hadn’t been cleaned either. Must have been a busy day. Let the Right One In was at the Paramount and the snowy vistas betray the complete difference in light quality between projector one and two (no platters at the Paz). Hunger was in the same venue during the Festival, six months ago. Sparkle was a skipping DVD lent by the Paramount — it was their backup so I hope they never have to use it. Sex Drive was a public screening at Readings where I witnessed a new low in audience putting-your-bare-feet-on-the-seat-in-front behaviour. Yuk!
And so, after 191 films viewed and reviewed here I get to sum up the 2007 cinema year. As I said back in September it’s been a great year for good films but a poor year for truly great ones. Even my (obviously unimpeachable) Top Ten list contains only a few that I think will be regarded as classics in 20 years but these are all films that I’d happily see again or even own on DVD if the chance arises.
Best of the year turns out to be the most recent: Sean Penn’s Into the Wild is the real deal. As beautiful to look at and listen to as the finest art film, but remaining down to earth, it features a star-making performance from Emile Hirsch leading an ensemble of fine screen actors and it ultimately delivers a message that is completely different to the one you expect: He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.
The next two selections are also notable for being the lowest-grossing films of the year: the mesmerising Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait followed one man around a football pitch for an entire match and the wondrous and glowing aboriginal film Ten Canoes reminded us that great story-telling can be found anywhere, from the camp fire to the multiplex. The finest performances of the year from grown-ups were found in Sarah Polley’s Away From Her. Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie were a couple reeling from the impact of Alzheimer’s: the pressure of the disease slowly unravelling a relationship that on the surface seemed so pure. Best performance of the year from anyone was little Kolya Spiridonov as “orphan” Vanya in The Italian, determined to find his Mother wherever she may be rather than go to the west with new parents.
Best documentary turned out to be the unpromising Deep Water: a film about a yacht race that ended up being about the deepest, darkest secrets kept by a fragile human soul – it was even better second time around. Atonement was a sweeping and romantic drama showcasing the many skills of the latest generation of British movie craftspeople, not least director Joe Wright who, annoyingly, is only 36 years old. Best local film in an uneven year (and justifiably in this Top Ten) is Taika Waititi’s Eagle vs. Shark: funny and sweet and sad and the product of a singular vision rather than the committee that seems to produce so many New Zealand films.
My favourite commercial film of the year was the sweet-natured and very funny Knocked Up about a slacker and a career-girl getting to grips with responsibility, relationships and parenthood: He tangata, he tangata, he tangata once again. Finally, I’ve spent all year trying to justify leaving Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver out of this Top Ten with no luck whatsoever: the complete lack of flaws of any kind mean it gets in despite the fact that I didn’t love it like I did some others.
It’s a tough time for local paper film reviewers around the world. Cinema critics from publications like the Village Voice have been given the flick by penny-pinching publishers and even the Sunday Star-Times in Auckland has started running film reviews from sister papers in Australia rather than pay someone locally to represent you. So, I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to watch all these films on your behalf and want to thank the Capital Times for indulging my desire to cover everything rather than a select few releases. Thanks, also, to all the Wellington cinemas who have graciously hosted me despite my fairly constant bitching about standards. But, above all, thank you for reading. See you next year.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday January 2, 2008.
In the Summer of 1990 Christopher McCandless donated his life savings to Oxfam and, instead of going to Harvard Law School, headed West in search of himself, never to talk to his family again. The journey he took, and what he found and left behind on the way, is the subject of Sean Penn’s cracking Into the Wild, based on the book by Jon Krakauer.
Driven by an intelligent young man’s self-righteousness McCandless lived off the land and the generosity of strangers, all the time taking himself further away from the people he thought he didn’t need. Emile Hirsch as McCandless has the look (and star quality) of the young Leonardo DiCaprio and the supporting cast are flawless, particularly Catherine Keener and the legendary Hal Holbrook who is just heartbreaking as lonely widower Ron Franz.
There’s no finer cinematic surveyor of the cavernous and mostly uncharted regions of the male soul than Penn and Into the Wild is his finest achievement to date, lyrical and beguiling. It’s funny how sitting in a dark room with strangers can sometimes leave you more engaged with the world but this film, the best of the year, did it for me. I came out of the theatre into the cool summer rain and walked home determined to experience every drop as if it was the first one.
Margaret Thatcher once said “There’s no such thing as society.” As a result, under her malevolent leadership English communities disintegrated as young people without economic or cultural hope went looking for fellowship and found it wherever they could. Set in post-Falklands northern England, gifted English director Shane Meadows (TwentyFourSeven and A Room for Romeo Brass) is back on top form with This is England, a memoir of sorts of his own Nottingham youth.
Picked on and lonely, 11-year-old Shaun is taken under the wing of benign skinhead Woody (Joe Gilgun). When gang leader Combo (Stephen Graham) returns from prison, his extreme National Front politics splinter the group and Shaun takes the wrong side. Meadows has always been able to get great performances out of young people and the wonderful Thomas Turgoose as Shaun is no exception.
Once is a little gem, like a perfect short story, sweet and funny and then gone in a heartbeat. Glen Hansard is a broken-hearted Dublin busker who meets immigrant single mother Markéta Irglová and bond over a broken vacuum cleaner. They share a love of music and over an intense week two damaged souls help heal each other (and us).
Working our way down the list of the week’s films, in order of quality, we get to Jerry Seinfeld’s Bee Movie. It’s a Dreamworks computer animated tale of young Barry (Seinfeld) who, disillusioned with a proscribed lifetime of endless work, wants to break out of the hive and see the world. He discovers that humans are exploiting bees for their honey and decides to right this terrible wrong, distorting the balance of nature in the process. It’s a hit and miss affair, at its best when the Seinfeld “voice” is given full reign (which isn’t often enough) but kids watching would probably say the opposite.
Also for younglings is the live action toy shop fantasy Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium starring twinkly Dustin Hoffman as the 200 year old toy impresario and shoe wearer. He wants to leave and hand the shop over to his manager, Natalie Portman, but she lacks self-belief and the shop is starting to sulk. Derivative and intermittently inspired, Magorium passes the time easily enough.
I’ll confess that I drifted off to sleep several times during The White Planet, a documentary about Arctic wildlife that manages to make the Embassy screen feel like a television set tuned to Animal Planet. I prefer my polar bears clad in armour and taking on bad guys and, frankly, when you’ve seen one narwhal you’ve seen ’em all.
Candidate for stupidest film of the year, Hitman, is the biggest load of inane rubbish I’ve witnessed in ages. Based on the video game of the same name Hitman, stars Timothy Olyphant (from Die Hard 4.0) as mysterious Agent 47. He’s been disavowed by his employers, the secret organisation known only as The Organisation (so secret they have their fancy logo plastered all over their laptops) after an assassination of the Russian Prime Minister goes wrong. Dougray Scott (Perfect Creature) is the Interpol agent who has been tracking him for three years with no luck, despite the fact that 47 has the number 47 tattooed as a bar code on the back of his head.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 12 December, 2007.
Notes on screening conditions: Into the Wild screened in Penthouse Two which still has appalling shutter timing problems (I’ve mentioned this before and Cinema One suffers similarly) and now has a noticeable hot spot in the centre of the screen. Penthouse are re-seating Cinema One but I wish they’d fix these problems first. This is England was in Rialto 2 which has had a reprieve through until March, I understand. I will dance on the rubble when it finally goes. Once was in the very nice Penthouse Three. Bee Movie screened at Empire 2, and thanks to all the kids was quite lively. Magorium was a Classic Hits radio preview early Sunday morning at Readings. The Embassy screen is not a perfect curve – in fact it is a series of narrow planes that looks like a parabola in most circumstances. This is very noticeable when the image is mostly one bright colour like the snow and ice of The White Planet (and the sand of Pirates of the Caribbean). Hitman was also at the Embassy and looked and sounded fine.