Despite my positive review for TT3D last week, I’m not a huge motorsport fan. In 1996 I worked on the last Nissan Mobil 500 race around the waterfront and couldn’t see the appeal of watching cars go belting around the same corner over and over again. In that race you couldn’t even tell who was winning, it was all such a blur. In fact, the only time I’ve ever watched Formula 1 was when I channel surfed on to some late night coverage one Sunday night in 1994 just before going to bed. Two corners (about 30 seconds) later, Ayrton Senna was dead. It was pretty freaky, let me tell you.
So, I knew (as all audiences must) that Asif Kapadia’s brilliant documentary Senna was going to end in tragedy. What I didn’t know was how riveting it was going to be from beginning to end. Senna works because it is first and foremost a portrait of a compelling character – a charismatic, confident but humble young man who understood the risks he took and fought to balance those risks with his innate desire to race and race hard – but when the politics of Formula 1 took the control of those risks out of his hands there you could see there was only going to be one result.
While hunting the site for some links to add to the just posted Winter’s Bone etc. review, I discovered that my Summer Holiday special hadn’t made it here. So, for completeness’ sake, here it is. Pretty sure, this is an early draft too but there’s no sign of an email submitting it.
What a lovely Summer we’ve been having – for watching movies. While the Avatar juggernaut rolls inexorably on there has plenty of other options for a dedicated seeker of shelter from the storm.
Released at any other time of year, Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones would be getting a decent length evaluation (and the headline) here but with fifteen films discuss we’ll have to live with the bullet point evaluation: not un-moving. My companion and I spent a about an hour after watching TLB discussing it’s flaws and yet both ended up agreeing that we’d actually enjoyed the film a lot, despite the problems.
Personally, I think Jackson’s tendency towards occasional whimsical in-jokery typified the uncertainty of tone (I’m thinking of his unnecessary camera shop cameo as an example) but the fundamental message – that the people left behind after a tragedy are more important than the victims – was clearly and quite bravely articulated. And when I saw the film at a crowded Embassy session, during the pivotal scene where the sister discovers the evidence to catch the killer, I could only hear one person breathing around me – and it wasn’t me.
And if the Hollywood big cheeses were worried about The Lord of the Rings shifting the tectonic plates of entertainment industry power they ought to be terrified by District 9, a new world demonstration of the SANZAR spirit (minus the Australians) that achieves in spades everything that this year’s big-budget tent-pole features like Transformers and Terminator failed to do. It works thrillingly as pure entertainment and yet at the same time it’s a little bit more.
From the first bars of John Williams’ famous fanfare, played on a 1000 kazoos, you know The Clone Wars is going to be a cheap and cheerful, Saturday morning cartoon level, rip-off of the Star Wars universe and so it proves. Without participation of any of the original stars (except for game old Chris Lee as Dooku) and George Lucas’ involvement limited to insisting that one character has the voice of Truman Capote, a minor episode gets spun out well beyond it’s ability to engage and entertain but it is quite amusing to be reminded that all the clones look like Tem Morrison. The tone is basically “All Jar-Jar, all the time” but even your average eight year old might wonder why it has to be so repetitive.
While it shouldn’t be any great surprise to be intellectually insulted by The Clone Wars, I was amazed to actually be personally insulted by the creators of comic-book action flick Wanted, during the summing-up voice-over at the end. Gentlemen, I am far from pathetic and the opposite of ordinary and if your idea of a valid personal philosophy is to murder strangers because a magic loom told you to, then I’m pretty happy here on my side of that fence. Director Timur Bekmambetov proved with Night Watch and Day Watch that he has a thrilling personal style but not much in the way of storytelling ability which he confirms with his first Hollywood studio production. Mr Tumnus, James McAvoy, plays nerdy accounts clerk Wesley who finds out he is the son and heir of the world’s best assassin. Aided by Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman he learns to shoot round corners and discover an objectivist sense of purpose that puts his own personal freedom and destiny above the lives of (for example) hundreds of innocent people on a train. Vile.
Harry Houdini was one of the 20th century’s legendary entertainers and in Death Defying ActsGuy Pearce renders him completely without charisma which is a remarkable achievement. The first great sceptic, Houdini offers $10,000 to anyone who can tell him his beloved mother’s final words. Stage mind-reader Catherine Zeta Jones sees a way out of poverty but finds herself falling in love instead. The lack of electricity (real or imagined) between the two leads hampers things somewhat but the camera loves Saoirse Ronan (Atonement and the forthcoming Lovely Bones) so it isn’t a complete waste of time.
While China is front and centre of world attention at the moment, the arrival in cinemas of Yung Chang’s excellent documentary Up the Yangtze couldn’t be better timed. Taking us on a luxury cruise up a Yangtze river being slowly transformed by the epic (Mao-inspired) Three Gorges Dam project, the film manages to get more of China into it’s cleverly layered 90 minutes than seems possible. Teenage Yu dreams of going to University and becoming an engineer but her parents are illiterate and dirt poor and have missed out on the compensation that would move them from their shack beside the river. So, against her will, she is sent to work on the cruise ship where she is given the English name Candy and instructed in the ways of modern domestic service. Meanwhile, her parents struggle to find a new place to live and the river inexorably rises.
When discussing global warming and carbon emissions, we are often told that China opens a new coal powered power station every week which is evidently a bad thing. But, ironically, when they build a renewable hydro-electric scheme the West gets pretty snooty about that too. The pressures on China from all directions are keenly felt in this film, which will tell you more about that part of the world than three weeks of Olympic Games.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 20 August, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: Star Wars: The Clone Wars was viewed at one of those excruciating radio station previews on Wednesday, 13 August (Readings). Wanted and Death Defying Acts were at Empire public screenings and Up the Yangtze was a preview screener DVD. I wish I had seen it at the Festival, though. I’m sure it would have looked very fine at the Embassy.
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).