Back before the days of “Iron Chef”, “Masterchef” and “Hell’s Kitchen”, television’s top food expert was a very tall, slightly ungainly, woman who sounded a little drunk. She was Julia Child and in the 60s she taught America how to cook. In an era where tv dinners, pre-prepared sauces and easy cake mixes were top of a busy housewife’s shopping list, Child produced the almighty tome Mastering the Art of French Cooking which went on to sell millions of copies and make her a legend.
A little later on, 2002 in fact, New Yorker Julie Powell started an online project to reproduce every recipe in the famous cookbook (over 500 of them) in a single year. Nora Ephron’s new film Julie & Julia skilfully merges the two stories, freely noting the parallels between them, and managing to produce a warm and witty film that honours the remarkable Child.
Twickenham in 1961 might well have been the most boring place on Earth. The 60s haven’t started yet (according to Philip Larkin the decade wouldn’t start until 1963 “between the end of the Chatterley Ban/and The Beatles first LP”) but the train was already on the tracks and could be heard approaching from a distance if you listened closely enough. Middle-class teenager Jenny is studying hard for Oxford but longing for something else – freedom and French cigarettes, love and liberation.
In Lone Scherfig’s An Education (from a script by Nick Hornby; adapted from Lynn Barber’s memoir), Jenny is luminously portrayed by newcomer Carey Mulligan (so adorable that if she’s ever in a film with Juno’s Ellen Page we’ll have to recalibrate the cuteness scale to accommodate them both) and she gets a hint of a way out of suburban English drudgery when she meets cool businessman David (Peter Sarsgaard) and he whisks her off her feet, to the West End and to Paris.
If you are on the look out for an intelligent, serious and impressively well-made drama that will stimulate and move you (and of course you are, or you wouldn’t be reading this) then The Reader will fit your bill perfectly. The last of the big Oscar contenders to hit our shores, this is a version of the best-selling novel which put the German struggle to come to terms with the crimes of the Nazis centre stage. The adaptation (by British playwright and screenwriter David Hare) also does this but something else as well – it becomes a meditation on all kinds of guilt and shame as well as the complex interaction between the two.
In 1958, schoolboy Michael Berg falls ill and is helped by a stranger (the extraordinary Kate Winslet). After his recovery, three months later, he returns to thank her and they begin an affair that lasts the final summer of his childhood. Between bouts of lovemaking she demands he read to her, telling her the stories and plays he is studying at school. Several months later she disappears, breaking poor Michael’s heart, only to return to his life eight years later in a Berlin courtroom, on trial for war crimes.
And, at risk of sounding like a total film-wanker I’m going to allocate what strengths The Spiderwick Chronicles has to the presence of the great John Sayles as co-writer. Sayles’ independent work includes classics like The Brother From Another Planet and Passion Fish but makes a living doing (mostly uncredited) punch-up jobs on big budget screenplays. I was growing increasingly frustrated with the plodding story-telling, and the over-reliance on the well-designed digi-creatures, before a great moment at the climax restored my faith that a proper screenwriter was on board after all.
Three children have to leave New York when their parents split up and live in the big, old, abandoned house in the country that their crazy Aunt lived in. Freddie Highmore, so ubiquitous in these sorts of films that he even does double-duty in this one, plays bad-boy Jared who discovers an old book in the attic, reads the note warning him not to open it, ignores it, and unleashes a world of goblins, fairies and ogres that are invisible to normal people. Nothing new to report there, then, but every generation seems to need a new version just for them.
I’ve been a John Pilger-sceptic for a while, not helped by his bombastic and unpleasant behaviour to local interviewers, but his first independent documentary for cinema, The War on Democracy, eventually won me over. It makes an excellent companion to Helen Smyth’s Cuba-doc ¿La Verdad? as it provides the kind of encyclopaedic background to the United States’ nefarious engagement with Latin America that she could only hint at. Starting in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, Pilger uses the failed coup in 2002 as a springboard to show how, for more than 50 years, the US has installed or deposed governments across the continent in order to further its own political and financial aims. It’s not great cinema – that’s not Pilger’s bag – but it is essential viewing.
Horton Hears a Who! may well feature the most profound moment in cinema this year. As the tiny citizens of Who-ville (a bustling and happy community living on a tiny speck, itself sitting on a dandelion being blown around by fate) realise that in order to be saved they first must be heard, they bang drums, blow trumpets and chant “We are here!” Like the forgotten poor in Pilger’s Caracas barrio or the displaced in Darfur, the power to proclaim our existence in the face of ignorant or malevolent authority isn’t just a right, it’s an obligation, and I’m certain that the good Dr. Seuss wouldn’t have missed the connection.
Big-hearted elephant Horton (Jim Carrey) rescues the speck when his enormous ears pick up the tiny voice of the Who-ville Mayor (Steve Carell) and he realises that he has a mission. In the face of community standards ruthlessly enforced by Carol Burnett’s Kangaroo, Horton is hounded out of the jungle but he never gives up. So, not only does Horton not suck like all recent Seuss adaptations, it bristles with energy, humour and panache. Choice!
Like the forthcoming Dylan portrait I’m Not There, Across the Universe feels like the Baby Boomers’ last attempt to claim the 60s as, you know, important, meaningful, unique. The music of The Beatles tells the story of star-crossed lovers Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) and Jude (Jim Sturgess) as they try and keep a relationship alive across that tumultuous decade. I emotionally disengaged the moment I realised that Sturgess sounded like Robbie Williams instead of John Lennon but was never less than entertained. A trip, man.
How She Move is a Canadian version of films like Step Up 2 The Streets, Stomp The Yard and countless others. Featuring all the usual elements of the genre: underground urban dance crews; a kid has to get out of the ghetto via a scholarship; she needs the prize money; parents just don’t understand, etc. It’s as if the producers couldn’t decide which banal clichés to leave out and gave up, stuffing the finished film to breaking point. I’ve grown to really dislike the dancing in these films, too.
Finally, a late word on behalf of Rambo (which missed the cut during the last few weeks). By making his villains Burmese human-rights violators and his victims innocent aid workers, director Sylvester Stallone stacks the deck effectively and, despite looking completely bizarre, he infuses his taciturn killing-machine with the occasional moist-eyed moment of humanity amid the flying limbs. A respectable end to what had become a cartoon franchise.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 16 April, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: Semi-Pro was at a sparsely attended public matinée at Readings. The Spiderwick Chronicles was at the Empire in Island Bay and the review was in no way influenced by the lovely free coffee they made me just as the trailers were playing. The War on Democracy was a DVD screener provided by Hopscotch (via GT) and the film is currently only playing at the Lighthouse in Petone. Horton Hears a Who! was also screened at the Empire where I was the only unattended adult present. Across the Universe was screened at the Paramount’sWorld Cinema Showcase. How She Move was an exceedingly sparsely attended matinée at Readings and Rambo was another Readings week day matinée, a couple of weeks ago.