Pegg and Frost play Graeme Willy and Clive Gollings, two very English sci-fi and comic book fans on a dream holiday: Comic-Con in San Diego then rent an RV and drive to the most famous UFO sites in the States (Area 51, Roswell New Mexico, etc.) While nerding it happily around the place they witness a car crash and discover the only survivor is a three foot tall alien (big head, big eyes) named Paul. He’s a wise-cracking smart-ass with the entirely appropriate voice of Seth Rogen and he’s been enjoying the hospitality of the US government for fifty years until they finally decide to cut him up to see how his brain works. So he escapes.
I don’t have much room this week and I want to spend most of it gushing over Slumdog Millionaire so let’s get started.
Back in 2003, when the Incredibly Strange Film Festival was still its own bumptious stand-alone anarchic self, we opened the Festival with the summer camp spoof Wet Hot American Summer and goodness me, wasn’t that a time? Written and directed by David Wain, WHAS was a pitch-perfect tribute to teen comedies of the 80s and his new film Role Models attempts to ride the current wave of sexually frank grown-up comedies but he doesn’t seem to really have the heart for it. The gross-out bits are uncomfortably gross, the boobies seem like afterthoughts and the film really doesn’t hit its straps until it starts cheering for the underdog late in the day.
Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott play salesman peddling energy drink to high school kids. After an unfortunate (stationary) road rage incident their jail time is converted to community service at Sturdy Wings – a ‘big brother’ outfit matching misfit kids up with responsible male adults. This kind of material has proved outstandingly popular recently when produced by Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and I can’t help thinking that if he had gotten his hands on Role Models it would have about 20% more jokes in 16% shorter running time – he really is that much of a machine.
It’s the weirdest coincidence. In two out of the three films I saw this week someone was shot in the ear. Seriously, go figure. Since I started this gig I’ve seen more than 400 films and no one has ever been shot in the ear and then, just like that, two come along at once.
That’s the only thing that connects two very different but very good films: Courtney Hunt’s debut thriller Frozen River and David Gordon Green’s very funny Pineapple Express. Frozen River is being sold as a thriller, and it does have some very tense edge-of-your-seat moments, but it’s actually a gritty drama about America’s rural poor with plenty of understanding and forgiveness running through its heart.
We open on a hard-faced woman’s tears. Melissa Leo plays Ray, whose husband Troy has given in to his gambling addiction and scarpered with the balloon-payment on their new trailer and it’s two days before Christmas. She’s bringing up her two children in a tiny trailer down a muddy driveway in a small town on the snowy border between New York state and Quebec, working part time in the Yankee Dollar store and trying to make ends meet.
Searching for the deadbeat husband at the local, Mohawk-run, bingo hall she meets Lila Littlewolf who is driving Troy’s abandoned car. Lila (Misty Upham) is a depressed young woman, living in her own lonely trailer, who intends to use the car to bring a few illegal immigrants in to the country, crossing the frozen river at the Indian reservation where the State Troopers can’t go. Needing money (and having rights to the car), Ray agrees to help, gambling everything she has on making a couple of trips so she can get her family through Christmas.
Gambling is the thread running through the film – the First Nation Mohawk people fund their programmes and maintain their independence through gambling and the working poor like Ray gamble every day that the few choices they have won’t see them falling through the cracks in the ice – metaphorically or in reality.
A brilliant debut, though not tightly-plotted enough to really qualify as a thriller, Frozen River is up there with 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days as an earnest representation of people who would otherwise be invisible to us.
Rogen also stars as pot-head process server Dale Denton, who witnesses a murder and, in his panic, hides out with his dealer Saul (James Franco). Unfortunately for both of them, this brings the wrath of the pot-mob down on both of them and they are chased across suburban Glendale by a motley crew of ruffians and hoodlums, all the while making good use of the herb that gives the film its title.
Rogen and Franco both came to producer Judd Apatow’s attention during the short-lived but well-loved tv show “Freaks & Geeks” (which also starred Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s Jason Segal) and their easy rapport is a strength that gets the film through some of its shakier moments.
Stocktaking the new digital 3D realm, we have now had an animated original (Beowulf), a couple of concert movies (including the brilliant U2), a live-action dud (Journey to the Center of the Earth) and now we see the results when Hollywood goes back to the vault and re-masters an older film for the new technology. The Nightmare Before Christmas from 1993 is an excellent introduction to the process (if you haven’t been tempted before). It was always a vivid and original production (watched over by Tim Burton) and the 3D really makes it pop.
Jack Skellington is the king of Halloween but is jaded and bored. Discovering Christmas-town, he decides that he wants Christmas all to himself and hi-jacks it (kidnapping Santa Claus in the process). Animated (using similar stop-motion techniques to the Aardman films) by Henry Selick, Nightmare is wonderful to look at and not too long for kids, although if you have little tolerance for musical thee-ater no amount of glorious 3D will counteract Danny Elfman’s soundtrack. Me, I loved it.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 29 October, 2008.
Due to exams I skipped a week writing for the CT so there was no scheduled entry for 5 November. You haven’t missed anything. Now, I have to start catching up on movies before I’m swamped by the Christmas rush. This year has gone by so fast.
In 1997 two young hotshots stunned the film world by winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for their first produced script. Since then, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have suffered cruel mutterings ever since: that they couldn’t possibly have written such a good film by themselves and that if they did why haven’t they written anything else? Added to the indignity is the constant rumour that Hollywood script guru William Goldman netted a million dollars for three weeks work punching up Good Will Hunting on condition that he would forever deny it (which he denies).
In the 11 years since that win the career trajectories of Affleck and Damon have been public. Starring roles in blockbuster successes, high-profile romantic liaisons and (in the case of Affleck) a little bit of rehab. But there has been precious little original creative output from either party until the release of Gone Baby Gone, Affleck’s directorial debut (also co-written), which reached Wellington this week.
Directing is a real test of a filmmaker’s chops. Unlike a fudged writing credit you can’t fake being on a set (although a great crew, DP and editor can often cover a multitude of sins) but I’m thrilled to report that Affleck has produced a work of genuine lasting quality.
Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, Gone Baby Gone is set in the same Boston mean streets that Will (from Good Will Hunting) grew up in. If you saw Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River (also from a Lehane story) or Scorsese’s The Departed you’ll be familiar with the geographical territory, but Affleck’s eye is even more highly tuned to the neighborhood than those masters.
Four year old Amanda has been snatched from her home while her young single mother (sensational Amy Ryan) was getting stoned at a bar. The Police led by Morgan Freeman (himself suffering the loss of a child) are struggling to get traction from a community suspicious of uniforms. Young private investigator Patrick (Casey Affleck) and his partner Angie (Michelle Monaghan) are enlisted by the family to try and tease out some clues that would be unavailable to law enforcement.
And that’s when it gets really interesting – because Affleck chooses to downplay the thriller (or procedural) aspects of the piece in favour of character study and the unveiling of a terrible moral dilemma. And its a dilemma that remains perfectly balanced right to the end where, like Bogart’s Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, our honourable private eye is virtually alone, forced to live with the unending pain of doing the right thing.
The production line of asian-horror-remakes is still chugging along. The Eye (remake of a Hong Kong thriller) will be reviewed next week while Shutter (based on a Thai film called Shutter) has already been around a week or so. I find these things to be dreadfully tiresome for the most part, formulaic and predictable. In Shutter a newlywed American couple in Japan (Joshua Jackson and Rachael Taylor) find strange shadows appearing in their holiday snaps. It turns out there’s a spirit following them around, sneaking into their frames, spoiling their compositions. Well, their photography is about to be the least of their worries. Shutter is laughable for the first two-thirds but rescued by a well-manufactured dénouement so I ended up not hating it totally.
Owen Wilson has been in the news more for his mental health issues than his acting in recent months but it is worthwhile to be reminded that he remains one of the most watch-able actors of modern times and the pleasant enough comedy Drillbit Taylor comes to life whenever he is on the screen. He plays the eponymous Taylor, a military deserter and bum who takes on the job of protecting three nerdy kids from high school bullies. The kids are pretty funny too – like the kids from Superbad, only a few years younger.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 2 April, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: This is the first all-Readings edition of the weekly review since it commenced back in October 2006.
The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Day in 1979. They remained in the country, brutally suppressing the local resistance, until they were forced to leave in 1989: almost ten years of occupation that destroyed one country and ruined another. One side of the story was told in the recent film The Kite Runner: in it we saw a vibrant and cosmopolitan culture bombed back to the stone age by the Soviets and their equally one-eyed Taliban replacements.
For peaceniks like myself, the Soviet aggression was an inconvenient fact, difficult to acknowledge during our efforts to prevent nuclear annihilation at the hands of war-mongerers like Ronald Reagan. While we were marching for peace and disarmament, playboy Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) was secretly funding the Mujahideen insurgents to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, providing them with the weapons that would bring down the Russians.
With the help of a renegade CIA-man (wonderful Philip Seymour Hoffman), a Texan socialite (Julia Roberts), an Israeli spy (Ken Stott) and President Zia, dictator of Pakistan (Om Puri), Wilson persuaded, cajoled, threatened and coerced Congress to pay for all this – without them even knowing what it was for. Aaron Sorkin’s script is razor-sharp, often very funny, and does a great job of not spelling out all the lessons we should be learning. Charlie Wilson’s War may have brought about the end of the Cold War but it also opened up Afghanistan to the brutal fundamentalism of the Taliban, increased the influence of the Saudis in the region and indirectly led to the Iraqi poo-fight we are in now. As Wilson says, it’s all about the endgame.
How strange it is that two of my favourite films of the past twelve months should be about coming-to-terms with an unwanted pregnancy. Knocked Up, last year, was a broad comedy with a good heart and this year Jason Reitman’s Juno is even better: full of unexpected subtlety and nuance from a great cast working with a tremendous script from gifted newcomer Diablo Cody.
Like last year’s Hard Candy, Ellen Page plays a precocious teenager only this time she is not a homicidal revenge maniac. At only 16, she finds herself pregnant to the unlikely Paulie Bleeker (Superbad’s Michael Cera) and takes it upon herself to find appropriate parents for the little sea monkey growing inside her. The rich couple who sign on (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) look perfect, but looks can be deceiving. Juno is an easy film to love and I can see people going back to it again and again.
If a film has a good heart you can forgive its flaws, but what to do when it has no heart at all? Cloverfield is a modern-day retelling of a classic Hollywood monster movie and once again New York gets a terrible pounding. A group of self-absorbed yuppies are caught in the carnage and try to escape but manage to film the entire thing on their camcorder. Yeah right. Technically admirable, Cloverfield cleverly maintains the home video conceit but shaky-cam motion sickness got to me in the end.
Meet the Spartans is all flaw and no redeeming feature: another miss and miss spoof of last year’s hits. Soft targets include “Ugly Betty”, “American Idol”, Paris Hilton (yawn) and 300. The Spartans were gay, apparently. And not in a good way.
The Jane Austen Book Club is a well-intentioned adaptation of the popular novel about a group of women (and one dude) who meet once a month to talk about their favourite author. Writer and director Robin Swicord has assembled a fine ensemble cast including Maria Bello, Kathy Baker, Amy Brenneman and Jimmy Smits but too often they are representatives of people rather than people themselves and the film is un-persusasive. Actually, that’s not entirely true: the tentative relationship between Bello’s independent hound breeder and Hugh Dancy’s shy IT guru works nicely (for the most part).
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 30 January, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: Charlie Wilson’s War screened at a Reading Cinemas print check, 9am last Tuesday morning (thanks, Hadyn), sitting in the comfy Gold Lounge chairs; Juno screened on Sunday afternoon in Penthouse 1 (the original). It’s nice to see the Penthouse finally replacing the seats in Cinema 1 but perhaps they could think about replacing the sound system with something that wasn’t salvaged from a transistor radio. Meet the Spartans was seen at a busy Saturday matinée at Readings where the brain-dead teenagers around me hooted at every stupid, lame, joke. Cloverfield was in Readings digital cinema (Cinema 5) and looked sensational. Digital really is the future and it can’t come soon enough. I shudder to think how ill I might have felt if I’d seen Cloverfield from a wobbly, scratchy print. The Jane Austen Book Club was the second part of a Penthouse double-feature on Sunday, this time in Cinema 3 (the new one) which is splendid.
When your correspondent was a nipper back in the early 80s, two of the most prized pirate videos available were the legendary Porky’s and something called Lemon Popsicle – two films about horny teenagers in the 1950s – and illicit copies were precious currency. Now the modern generation gets its own fat Jewish kids trying to get laid in Superbad: a very funny, filthy, comedy spawned fully-formed from the dirty minds of two horny 14 year olds (writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg produced their first draft when they were, in fact, only 14).
High school kids Seth and Evan are desperate to get lucky so they’ll be able to go to college with “experience” and the only way they know to achieve that is to get chicks drunk. With the help of an extremely humorous fake Hawaiian ID and two hilariously easy-going local cops they get pretty close. As you might expect, the perfect audience for this film is about 14 years old, and considering the R16 rating it would only be fitting if they watched it on grainy VHS or wagged school to sneak into the flicks.
I Do is that rare beast: a romantic comedy that works better as a romance than a comedy, largely due to direction from Eric Lartigau that makes a horrible meal of the broad comedy moments and self-effacing performances from leads Charlotte Gainsbourg and Alain Chabat. Chabat plays hen-pecked metrosexual perfume designer Luis Costa, saddled with five sisters, seven nieces and a widowed mother, all of whom are desperate to see him married off. As seems to bethe way of things in French cinema recently Costa hires a stranger to pretend to be his fiancée so she can dump him at the alter and the family will get off his back. A matchless plan I’m sure you’ll agree.
Surely it can’t be a coincidence that this film is released in the same week as Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, another film about an emotionally stunted wonder-nose. Perfume is based on the well-loved Patrick Süsskind novel that many (including Stanley Kubrick) considered un-filmable and so it proves. Ben Wishaw plays Jean-Baptiste Grenouille: born into poverty in pre-revolutionary Paris he has a remarkable talent for discerning scent. Unfortunately, as a character he’s not much more than a monkey-boy with a nose and director Tom Tykwer fails to find a satisfactory cinematic representation for the sense of smell which defeats the point somewhat.
I won’t go as far as recommending avoidance as, unlike most films, it is full of memorable moments and will at least provoke a response – its just that mine was negative.
The likeable comedian Steve Carell takes the lead in Evan Almighty, sequel to un-likeable comedian Jim Carrey’s smash-hit Bruce Almighty from 2003. Carell plays politician Evan Baxter who is taught a lesson in humility and ethics by genial practical joker God (Morgan Freeman). Soft-headed, dim-witted but warm-hearted.
Punk came along at just the right time for Joe Strummer. As “Woody” Mellor (after folkie Woody Guthrie) he was a middle-class art school drop-out channelling his energy into women and pub rock until he heard the siren call of punk and made his mark as leader of The Clash. Julien Temple’s moving biography, The Future is Unwritten, is an excellent guide to the punk period but is even better on the personal and artistic resurrection of Strummer’s final years. Highly recommended.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 19 September, 2007.