OK, so here’s how this is supposed to work. I watch a whole lot of films, give you a hopefully spoiler-free rundown of what they’re about, offer you my impressions and then – based on what you’ve read of me in the past – you can decide whether to drop some folding on a night at the pictures, wait for a DVD to come out or (if you are a student with no morals) download something to not watch later.
Now, my taste just so happens to be impeccable so you could do a lot worse than follow my every recommendation but this week I totally surprised myself and I’d be fascinated to see if many of you respond in quite the same way.
Secretariat was a racehorse – a very successful racehorse. In 1973 it was the first horse for 25 years to win the Triple Crown (the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont) and is widely acknowledged to be the finest Thoroughbred that ever lived. I know next to nothing about racing – and could care even less – and yet I watched Randall Wallace’s biopic of the horse with tears in my eyes from start to finish. I haven’t been milked like that since The Pursuit of Happyness back in 2007 and frankly Secretariat had no right to do that to me. I mean, it’s all been seen before and it’s certainly not as if you don’t already know what’s going to happen. And yet… and yet… I adored it.
This week, three films which trade on a twist or revelation (to varying degrees of success). First, Seven Pounds reunites the creative team behind 2006’s excellent The Pursuit of Happyness and is this year’s annoying entry in the “Will Smith Serious Movie Contest”. Smith plays the mysterious benefactor Ben Thomas who appears to be looking for deserving strugglers who need a helping hand (like a researcher for “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”) but as the circumstances are slowly unravelled a darker picture emerges.
Put together with considerable talent and passion by all concerned (supporting performances from Barry Pepper and Woody Harrelson are worth mentioning), Seven Pounds suffers from a maddening script and, frankly, a totally misguided conception which someone should have put a stop to much sooner. Yet, it continues to look beautiful, and the performances remain first rate, right up until the most lunatic of loose ends are tied up and you are released once again, bewildered, in to the Wellington sunshine.
Seven Pounds is reminiscent of Iñárritu’s masterpiece 21 Grams and is similarly about atonement – but the only atonement required here should come from screenwriter Grant Nieporte (whose most high-profile previous credit is an episode of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”).
There’s an example of real writing on display in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, an adaptation of his own stage play which was produced at Circa last year. In the Bronx in 1964, a progressive young Catholic priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is accused by harridan headmistress Meryl Streep of abusing 12-year-old pupil Donald Miller. In a series of lengthy scenes between Hoffman, Streep, witness Sister James (Amy Adams) and the boy’s mother (little-known Viola Davis more than holding her own in this heavyweight company) the investigation is played out.
Only it isn’t really an investigation – just a hunch followed by political and emotional manoeuvring to provoke the downfall of a possibly innocent man. There are many complexities to take account of: Miller is the only black child in a school full of Irish and Italian kids, he’s a sensitive soul looking for a father figure, Hoffman insists he is simply innocently tending his flock. None of this is enough for the sour old Principal who believes her knowledge of human nature trumps all.
When Doubt was playing on Broadway many critics drew parallels with the Bush II rush to war in Iraq, based on faith rather than facts (which Shanley hasn’t denied), but with a little distance the broader implications of faith versus doubt are allowed some air.
Shanley hasn’t directed a film since the under-appreciated Joe Versus the Volcano back in 1990 and he proves capable enough here, although the film never really escapes the stage. But it’s an intelligent, well-acted, thought-provoking little drama and we should be grateful for it.
The most successful twist of the week comes in the unassuming Italian drama My Brother is an Only Child, a genial family drama, 60s coming of age story and political history lesson. In the small industrial town of Latina, founded by the fascists in the 30s and remaining sympathetic to Mussolini’s rule, two brothers compete politically and romantically. Manrico (Riccardo Scamarcio) is the older Benassi brother, a fiery leftist with a roving eye. Younger brother Assio (Elio Germano) tries the seminary and fascism before wising up. Between the two boys is the beautiful Francesca (Diane Fleri), distracting them both from the important political matters at hand.
When it comes, the twist is like a kidney punch, sucking all the air out of you. You’ve grown to like all these characters with their passionate, expressive, emotional Italian-ness and by the end you find you really care – something that the clever-clever Seven Pounds was never likely to achieve.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 21 January, 2009.
I want to apologise to regular readers for the poor quality of the prose in this week’s review. I knew it was pretty crappy when I submitted it but the combination of only one day in Wellington before deadline meant I had to write it and send it before returning to work on Tuesday. It could definitely have used an extra polish.
Finally, we have a week with only one new film in it: a chance for me to stretch my legs, extemporise, riff a little, get my hands dirty. Yeah, I’ve been looking forward to this, to prove I can be a real film critic and write erudite and cultured prose; place a film in its wider social, political and cultural context; discuss mise-en-scène and diegetic register, all the while providing a riveting (and undeniably “correct”) perspective on the film’s merits and qualities. Cool.
Unfortunately, the film that stands alone this week is the Keanu Reeves remake of the 1951 classicThe Day the Earth Stood Still and frankly its hardly worth the bother. The original film was a pulp parable playing on the nuclear paranoia of “duck and cover” America: an alien lands in Central Park to tell us that he’s going to destroy the human race because we don’t deserve to live (we are warlike, brutal and selfish creatures you see, and the earth is too precious to be left in our care). But, the stern humanoid alien Klaatu softens on contact with a human child and realises that our capacity for change makes us worth persevering with. Naïve but satisfying.
The new version keeps the guts of the story intact (ecological doom and homeland security make up the new paranoia) while overblowing everything else to giant size. Reeves deadpans his way through as Klaatu (sensibly staying well within the limits of his range) and he’s joined by the mid-market star power of Jennifer Connelly, “Mad Men“ ‘s ‘Don Draper’ himself (the unfortunately named Jon Hamm), Kathy Bates and a miscast John Cleese. Kid duty is done by Will Smith’s little boy Jaden who made such an impression in last year’s The Pursuit of Happyness.
I had high hopes for this, based on some evocative trailers, but the reality is a disappointment. The plotting is messy and inconclusive and the effects look murky and rushed. The whole thing looks like someone lost confidence half way through shooting, then decided to cut the budget in half and hope for the best.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 17 December, 2008.
The always watchable Will Smith returns to our screens this week in a more than decent drama called The Pursuit of Happyness. Smith plays solo dad Chris Gardner who struggles to find a way out of the poverty trap (through an unpaid internship at stockbroker Dean Witter) while bad luck, and life itself, conspire against him. Happyness is a well-made reminder that it can be flippin’ expensive being poor and it successfully wrung several salty tears from these calloused eyes.
Incidentally, Smith’s son Christopher is played by Smith’s real-life son Jaden, proving that the apple really doesn’t fall very far from the tree.