Last time we saw Tom Cruise he was known as Jack Reacher. Now, in Oblivion, his name is Jack Harper. What range! What diversity! You’d hardly recognise him. Harper is a maintenance guy, repairing the drones that protect giant machines that suck Earth’s oceans up to an enormous space station orbiting above us, a space station that is going to take the few remaining survivors of our pyrrhic victory over invading aliens on a final journey away from a devastated planet to a new life on Titan.
Assisting Mr. Cruise with his mechanical defence duties is Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), life and work partner, keeping him in contact with the supervisors floating above them and keeping an eye on the straggling remnants of the aliens who tried to conquer us. Traditional gender roles are very much still intact in the future – even though the Moon isn’t – and Ms. Riseborough’s character seems content to never leave the spotless modern kitchen while Cruise gets his hands dirty on the surface. Neither of them seem too bothered by the fact that they had their memories wiped six years previously, although he has been having some strange dreams recently.
It’s babies everywhere in the cinemas at the moment. Last week I reviewed the Tina Fey comedy Baby Mama about a middle-aged woman desperate for a child and this week we have a Helen Hunt drama about a middle-aged woman desperate for a baby and even Hellboy is going to be a daddy.
Then She Found Me, Helen Hunt’s debut as writer-director, is a sensitive and well-acted piece of work (and often much funnier than the Fey version). She plays a New York primary school teacher whose adoptive mother dies two days after her husband (Matthew Broderick) leaves her. Like many adopted children, the desire for a blood-relative is what promotes the desire for a child, but that desire is soon swamped by the arrival of the birth mother she never knew (Bette Midler) and a ready-made family led by Colin Firth. Witty and humane, Then She Found Me is set in a New York people actually live in, populated with people who actually live and breathe. I was quite moved by this film, but then maybe I’m just a big sook.
Back in the 1980s, toiling under the yoke of Thatcherite crypto-fascist intolerance, we used to dream of the German Democratic Republic where according to apologists like Billy Bragg, “you can’t get guitar strings but everyone has a job and decent health care.” Now, of course, thanks to films like The Lives of Others, we know that the rulers of East Germany were just fascists with another uniform and that social justice may be important but isn’t the only kind of justice we need in our lives. Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution is a low-budget British comedy about a naïve family of Yorkshire communists in 1968 who follow their dreams of a workers’ paradise and emigrate to East Germany only to find the truth very much not to their liking.
There might have been an interesting story here buried under the broad comedy – sometimes it seems like Carry on Communism – but the tone is all wrong and it feels as if it has gone intellectually off the rails. There’s some nice architecture although the filmmakers had to go to Hungary to find it.
Sometimes, when you go to the movies, you get the perfect match of film to mood. Not often, but sometimes. Last Friday night, after a week where the ambient stress level at work had amped up yet again, I needed to see something that didn’t require anything of me except my presence and I got it with Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Featuring lots of bright shiny things to keep my attention, lots of loud noises to keep me awake and not much in the way of story to worry about, I enjoyed myself a lot but don’t remember very much. Except noting that, unlike The Dark Knight’s Christopher Nolan, director Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth and the forthcoming Hobbit duo-logy) shoots fight scenes so you can follow what’s going on.
The Paramount’s eclectic (if not schizophrenic) programming policy throws up some odd combinations. The presence of the hideous, animated, Bible-story The Ten Commandments is simply inexplicable while Spanish shocker [REC] is perfect Paramount fodder. And at the same time, Danny Mulheron’s loving home-made documentary about his grandfather, The Third Richard, is getting a well-deserved brief season. The Ten Commandments barely belongs in the $5 DVD bargain-bin (or as a free gift when you sign up with your local evangelicals). It’s a sign of how our culture has changed that in the 50s we got Charlton Heston bringing the tablets down from the mountain, and now we get Christian Slater. And what to make of the subtle re-writing of the commandments themselves: Thou Shalt Not Murder gives you a little more wiggle-room in the killing department than the old-fashioned Thou Shalt Not Kill. Reprehensible.
One is either in to zombie movies or one isn’t, and if one is one will be very happy with [REC]. Set in a Barcelona apartment building where a fly-on-the-wall tv crew are following fire-fighters on an emergency call, [REC] at one point managed to make me jump three times in less than a second – that’s not easy.
The story of Richard Fuchs, architect and composer, emigré and grandfather, is very well told by Danny Mulheron and Sara Stretton. Based around a “rehabilitation” concert in Karlsruhe, last year, where Fuchs’ music was played in public for the first time since his escape to New Zealand in 1939, the film has some stylistic choices that I might not have made but the heart and intelligence of the filmmmakers shine through. It’s a Wellington story, too, and you should see it if you can.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 3 September, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution was interrupted twice by the house lights (a Sunday morning screening in Penthouse 2, still suffering from the annoying screen flicker caused by incorrect shutter timing and the hot spot in the centre of the screen). And I had to go down and close the door at the start of the film. At [REC] quite a few of us were sat in the Brooks (Paramount) amidst the bottles, empty glasses and general rubbish from a whole day’s screenings. <Sigh>
Paul Verhoeven is one of those directors that has no hand-brake, regardless of the subject matter. For ice-pick wielding murderers (Basic Instinct) or giant alien bugs (Starship Troopers) this damn-the-torpedos attitude is perfect; when we’re talking about Dutch jews being betrayed by corrupt members of the resistance in WWII – not so much.
Black Book is Verhoeven’s first film in seven years, and his first film back home in Holland since Flesh + Blood back in 1985. Carice van Houten plays Rachel Stein, a nightclub singer before the war, now on the run from the Nazis. When her family is murdered on the brink of escape she dyes her hair blonde and joins the resistance, going undercover and then falling in love with the good German played by Sebastian Koch from The Lives of Others (you know he’s going to be a good German because he collects stamps and doesn’t have a scar on his cheek).
In the amusingly mis-named German Democratic Republic, during the last years before the Berlin Wall fell and Germany was re-unified, the people were monitored for idealogical and political purity by the Stasi, or Secret Police. Astonishingly, there were 90,000 officers in the Stasi and hundreds of thousands more were paid informants, keeping themselves out of jail or settling old scores. A deeply paranoid political élite learnt its philosophies and its practice from the Nazis they had overthrown and an ill-timed joke could see the end of a career or the start of a spell in solitary confinement.
The awfulness and absurdity of the situation is brilliantly painted in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s thriller The Lives of Others, the best Foreign Film Oscar-winner in years. Set in the late 1980’s, as even the most loyal of state servants and patriots are losing their faith, state-sanctioned playwright Dreyman, played by Sebastian Koch, is shaken by the suicide of his black-listed director, Jerska. He writes an article on suicide statistics in the GDR to be smuggled out to the West, not realising that his flat is being monitored 24/7 by the Stasi. Luckily, his main voyeur (Wiesler, a lovely performance by Ulrich Mühe) is having complex second thoughts of his own.