I watch a lot of movies in this job and this week I’d like to start with a couple of important tips that will help keep your cinema-going experience in top shape. Firstly, ice cream. Avoid tubs of ice cream if possible because you have to look down every scoop to make sure you’re not scooping ice cream into your lap and every time you look down you miss something important on the screen. This is particularly important for subtitled films.
Secondly, when your local cinema schedules an arthouse film that hasn’t been previously programmed by the Film Festival, ask yourself why that might be before committing to a ticket. Case in point: Leaving (aka Partir) a modern day updating of the Lady Chatterley story starring Kristin Scott Thomas. She plays a well-off married woman named Suzanne who makes the tragic mistake of falling for the Spanish builder who is working on her house. In short order she realises that her marriage (though materially successful) is loveless, leaves her snobby surgeon husband (Yvan Attal) and the kids to shack up with her new lover (Sergi López) and tries to start a new life without all the bourgeois home comforts.
It seems to me that every French film that makes it to New Zealand is about the same thing: the clash of cultures between the well-off, culturally sophisticated but somehow not quite real, middle-class and the salt-of-the-earth working people, and the dangers of the two mixing. Sometimes those dangers play themselves out comedically (The Valet, Welcome to the Sticks), sometimes dramatically (Conversations with My Gardener) and sometimes tragically as we have here. And Leaving is tragic in more ways than one.
My favourite post-Oscars quote came from David Thomson in The Guardian: “When the Slumdog mob – Europeans and Indians, adults and kids – took the stage to claim the best picture Oscar, a landmark was being established which directly reflects America’s reduced place in the world.” And as if to illustrate that very point, this week Hollywood have offered us a piteous prison comedy called Big Stan and Zack and Miri Make a Porno. It’s like they aren’t even trying anymore.
Big Stan is the debut feature by comic actor Rob Schneider, best-known for a pair of ghastly adult comedies featuring his hapless male prostitute alter-ego Deuce Bigelow. Schneider amazingly maintains a solid career (largely via the patronage of his great friend Adam Sandler) but there’s no satisfactory explanation for how he was let loose with a camera except that Hollywood is genuinely out of ideas.
Schneider plays a real estate con man who is convicted and sentenced to jail. Terrified at the prospect of imminent anal rape he enlists a martial arts master (David Carradine) to make him, er, impregnable. Like being punched in the swingers by an angry dwarf for 90 minutes.
What I did on my holidays by Dan Slevin (aged 38 and a half).
After a few days off between Christmas and New Year I launched back in to the swing of cinema things with a “Disfunctional Royal Family” double-feature of The Queen (Stephen Frears) and Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola) at the Penthouse. Helen Mirren is wonderful in an endlessly fascinating tale of an institution realising that it that may have outstayed it’s welcome, while Kirsten Dunst radiates beauty (despite those wonky teeth) as the last queen of France. The problem with Marie Antoinette is that the protagonist doesn’t do any actual protagonising which means that we get a lot of beautiful tableaux but very little drama.
Ed Harris turns in a bravura performance as Ludwig Van Beethoven in Copying Beethoven (Agnieszka Holland) along with an almost impossibly beautiful Diane Kruger who plays the young composition student helping him complete his final masterpieces. The music is sensational. Late in 2006, the gifted Argentine director Fabián Bielinsky (Nine Queens) passed away leaving us The Aura as his valediction. Starring the redoubtable Ricardo Darin as an epileptic taxidermist, The Aura is moody and evocative but wasn’t quite enough to keep this reviewer awake on a wet Wednesday afternoon. If life wasn’t so short I’d give it another crack as I’m sure there was something going on underneath but it was soooo sloooow.
The five year old I took to Happy Feet (George Miller) was still singing songs from the film that night so very much mission accomplished on that front. It’s a hugely entertaining collection of set-pieces which kind of fall apart when the necessities of plot intervene and it turns uncomfortably dark, very quickly. Miller has had an interesting career: starting out as a medical doctor he then made the Mad Max films, kick-started the CGI talking animals trend with Babe and now tap-dancing penguins. Talking of talking animals, Charlotte’s Web (Gary Winick) managed to squeeze an unwilling tear out of me despite the feeling of manipulation throughout.
On a more grown-up level (though not by much) The Valet (Francis Veber) didn’t pull up any trees and in fact ended so suddenly I thought there was a reel missing. The most appealing character in the flick, Alice Taglioni as the super-model, gets no closure to her story. She’s left alone in her apartment crying. What’s that about? The Prestige (Christopher Nolan) was always going to appeal to me due it’s subject matter and the presence of perfect distraction Scarlett Johansson and it delivered. The film is about stage magic and uses stage magic principles to tell it’s very twisty story – though some might say it has one twist too many.
Babel (Alejandro González Iñárritu) is one of the best films of this or any year, a serious, meditative snapshot of our world thorough a stranger’s eyes. Four stories are told in parallel, three immediately linked and the connections with the fourth gently revealed by the end. It has a kind of science-fiction feel about it as we see four very different world cultures presented as if they could be other planets, alien territory yet eerily familiar. If I had stumbled across Four Last Songs (Francesca Joseph) on television where it belongs I would have changed channels after about five minutes, so I did the cinema equivalent instead and went looking for some sunshine.
Lastly, I had the mixed pleasure of a “Sadistic Violence” double-feature at Readings: Saw III (Darren Lynn Bousman) and Apocalypto (Mel Gibson). Crikey. What possesses a screenwriter or director to sit in front of a virgin white piece of paper and then use it to dream up ways of dismembering people? Funnily enough, Saw III is the more respectable piece of work as it doesn’t try and pretend to be anything more than it is, while Apocalypto is the usual Hollywood rubbish dressed up in National Geographic clothing. Gibson is a dangerous extremist (not just in purely cinematic terms) and the foul politics of Apocalypto are not made up for by the boisterous filmmaking.
Not seen before deadline: Heart of The Game (Ward Serrill); Open Season (Roger Allers, Jill Culton, Anthony Stacchi).
UPDATE: Evidently there is no Capital Times this week so it looks like this opus will remain online only. You lucky, lucky people… Six more films are released this week and the world continues to turn relentlessly onwards.
UPDATE: Printed in the Capital Times, Wellington, Wednesday January 24, 2007.