To really understand a country you have to go and live there – embed yourself with the people, soak up the culture. If you don’t have the time or inclination for that then the next best thing to is to get stuck in to their commercial cinema. Not the stuff that makes it into major international film festivals like Berlin and Venice, not the stuff that gets nominated for foreign language Academy Awards, but the films that are made to excite and please a local audience. That’s what festivals like Reel Brazil are all about – a week-long portrait of a country via its cinema.
In the late 60s Brazil had a kind of Brazilian Idol television pop competition where brave young artists performed their top song in front of a live audience baying for blood as if they were watching Christians versus lions. But in A Night in 67 we see that year’s competition rise above the boos and jeers to open a new chapter in Brazilian pop music – legendary names like Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso compete to win over the tough crowd and in the process launch massive international careers.
After nearly three and a half years of producing this cinemagoers’ consumer guide, perhaps its time for a statement of intent. A manifesto, if you will. Something to place these musings in perspective as you skim through them over Morning Tea.
I try and find something good and interesting in everything I see, and I see pretty much everything. Most films have an audience of some description waiting for them somewhere, and that audience may be you, so I try and outline what might appeal (along with what might not) so that you can make an informed choice.
Plus, I have some sympathy for the little battler and will often try and draw your attention in that direction (Don’t forget Two Lovers, folks) and I try and watch films not meant for me (kids flicks, etc) with half an eye on how the rest of the audience is reacting.
It is extremely rare, as regular readers will know, for me to warn you off a film entirely, or indeed (in the case of our first film this week) suggest that its creators should be harshly punished for its perpetration. The films that are really sand under my foreskin are those that only exist to pad a resumé and a bank balance, cynical attempts to separate us from our money, marketing campaigns crudely disguised as art.
One of the first films I reviewed when I started here was an charming documentary called Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey in which Canadian fans Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen travelled the world talking to other fans (and the stars they worship) about what it is that makes metal great. In that film they interviewed Iron Maiden’s vocalist Bruce Dickinson and they must have made a decent impression as Maiden (and EMI) have given them a decent budget and loads of access for them to document their Somewhere Back in Time tour (around the world last year).
And what a wheeze the tour turned out to be. Chartering a 757 from Dickinson’s other employer, taking half the seats out so the gear and set could fit, flying the whole show between gigs with Dickinson piloting the whole time – a bunch of pasty middle-aged English lads having the time of their lives across half the world. The only real drama comes when drummer Nicko McBrain gets hit on the wrist by a golf ball, but it doesn’t matter because the joy of seeing a band really moving audiences (in places like Mumbai and Costa Rica) is the reason for this film to exist. And this film rises above above other recent great rock movies like U2-3D and Shine a Light – because it’s about the fans as well as the band and it recognises the complex interdependence of the relationship.
Robert Downey Jr. as Kirk Lazarus as Sgt. Osiris in Tropic Thunder (NY Daily News)
As predicted here back in August, Robert Downey Jr has been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his fantastic work in Tropic Thunder. He won’t win it, of coure, for the simple reason that actors nominate actors but the entire Academy then votes for the winner. Actors know how amazing that Tropic Thunder performance is – the technical ability, the control, the detail – but when the entire Academy votes sentiment will trump everything and Heath Ledger will romp home. But I stand by my opinion – Downey Jr’s was the best performance I saw last year in anything.
I’m also pleased to see Richard Jenkins get a nod for The Visitor. I was lucky enough to interview him last year for the Capital Times and he was a delight – modest, charming and generous.
Compelled once again by Christmas deadlines to sum up the year in cinema, I have been thinking a lot about how some movies stay with you and some don’t, how some movies have got average reviews from me this year but have grown in my affections, and how there are some films you want to see again and some you’re not so bothered about – even when you admire them.
So I’m going to divide my year up in to the following categories: Keepers are films I want to own and live with. Films I can expect to watch once a year – or force upon guests when I discover they haven’t already been seen. Repeats are films I wouldn’t mind seeing again – renting or borrowing or stumbling across on tv. Enjoyed are films I enjoyed (obviously) and respected but am in no hurry to watch again.
The “keepers” won’t come as any great surprise: The Coen’s No Country for Old Men and PT Anderson’s There Will Be Blood were both stone-cold American masterpieces. NCFOM just about shades it as film of the year but only because I haven’t yet watched TWBB a second time. Vincent Ward’s Rain of the Children was the best New Zealand film for a very long time, an emotional epic. Apollo doco In the Shadow of the Moon moved and inspired me and I want to give it a chance to continue to do so by keeping it in my house. Finally, two supremely satisfying music films: I could listen to Todd Haynes’ Dylan biopic I’m Not There. again and again, and watching it was was much funnier than I expected. Not minding the music of U2, I didn’t have a big hump to get over watching their 3D concert movie, but what a blast it was! Immersive and involving, it was the first truly great digital 3D experience. For the time being you can’t recreate the 3D experience at home so I hold out for a giant cinema screen of my own to watch it on.
Next layer down are the films I wouldn’t mind watching again, either because I suspect there are hidden pleasures to be revealed or because a second viewing will confirm or deny suspected greatness. Gritty Romanian masterpiece 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days has stayed with me since I saw it in March. Be Kind Rewind was rich enough (and good-hearted enough) to deserve another look. Martin McDonagh’s bizarre hitman fantasy In Bruges rocked along at such a decent clip I need to see it again to make sure I didn’t miss any of it’s eccentric pleasures. I liked and respected the Coen’s other 2008 entry Burn After Reading more than every other critic so a second viewing would be useful, if only to confirm that I appreciated it better than everyone else did… Or not.
If I could just clip the Robert Downey Jr. bits from Tropic Thunder it would be a keeper, instead I look forward to seeing it again over Christmas. The same goes for the entire first act of WALL•E which I could watch over and over again. Sadly the film lost some of that magic when it got in to space (though it remains a stunning achievement all the same).
Into the “Enjoy” category: Of the documentaries released to cinemas this year, three stood out. The affectionate portrait of Auckland theatre-maker Warwick Broadhead, Rubbings From a Live Man, was moving and its strangeness was perfectly appropriate. Up the Yangtze showed us a China we couldn’t see via the Olympics juggernaut and Young at Heart is still playing and shouldn’t be missed.
Mainstream Hollywood wasn’t a complete waste of space this year (although the ghastly cynical rom-coms 27 Dresses and Made of Honour would have you believe otherwise). Ghost Town was the best romantic comedy of the year; The Dark Knight and Iron Man were entertaining enough; I got carried away by Mamma Mia and the showstopping performance by Meryl Streep; Taken was energetic Euro-pulp; Horton Hears a Who! and Madagascar 2 held up the kid-friendly end of the deal (plus a shout-out for the under-appreciated Space Chimps) and, of course, Babylon A.D. (just kidding, but I did enjoy it’s campy insanity).
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 31 December, 2008.
Note that I deliberately avoid choosing Festival-only films as directing people towards films they can’t easily see is just cruel.
“My drumming sucks” – Richard Jenkins in The Visitor
Best known to New Zealand audiences as the deceased patriarch of the Fisher family in television’s “Six Feet Under”, Richard Jenkins has had a steady career in movies over the last 25 years, often in unsung supporting roles, but this year he has really left a mark.
Speaking to the Capital Times from his home in Rhode Island, Jenkins gave thanks to Thomas McCarthy, creator of 2004’s sleeper hit The Station Agent, for having faith in him despite his lack of marquee presence. “He asked me to read the script and I hadn’t read anything I liked more. But I told him, nobody’s going to give you the money with me in it!” But McCarthy persevered, even when one executive producer suggested just weeks before shooting that Morgan Freeman might be a more commercial choice.
2008 has been a great year for Jenkins. In the sophomoric buddy comedy Step Brothers he got to improvise scenes about dinosaurs with Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly; he was reunited with The Coen Brothers for Burn After Reading (in a part that was written for him); and in the sensitive indie he shines as a widowed academic brought back from a boundless depression by a chance New York connection with two illegal immigrants.
But carrying a film on his shoulders was a new experience. “I always wondered what it would be like, you know? Could I do it? But most of all, I didn’t want to let Tom down.” He needn’t have worried, as his performance anchors a typically humane McCarthy film about strangers thrown together and learning to appreciate and then love each other.
Jenkins continues to live in tiny Rhode Island where he moved after successfully auditioning for the Trinity Rep theatre company in Providence in 1970. He happily performed and directed there for 14 years, even spending four years as acting Artistic Director just as his film career was taking off.
The movie work has been so regular he hasn’t been on a stage since 1985 but he never anticipated a film career. ”I’d always loved film but frankly, it was easier to go the the moon,” he laughs. “A career is something you look back on rather than something you plan”.
Now he says he enjoys watching theatre more than he ever did (when he was acting in it) and tries to catch whatever he can, wherever he may be filming.
At the rate that Jenkins makes films (there are another four in the can for release next year), the law of averages suggests he will be shooting in Wellington before too long and he knows the talent we have to offer, describing working with Niki (Whale Rider) Caro on North Country as his best movie-making experience ever.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 3 December, 2008.