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the pursuit of happyness

Review: Secretariat and Gainsbourg (plus French Film Festival preview)

By Cinema and Reviews

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 posterSecretariat 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.

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Review: Seven Pounds, Doubt and My Brother is an Only Child

By Cinema and Reviews

Seven Pounds posterThis 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”).

Doubt posterThere’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.

My Brother is an Only Child posterThe 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.

Review: The Day the Earth Stood Still

By Cinema and Reviews

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.

The Day the Earth Stood Still posterUnfortunately, the film that stands alone this week is the Keanu Reeves remake of the 1951 clas­sic The 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.

Review: The Pursuit of Happyness and more ...

By Cinema and Reviews

Pursuit of Happyness posterThe 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.

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