Special guests Darren Bevan, Dominic Corry, Graeme Tuckett and Chris Hormann on the just-launched NZIFF programme, 11-year-old Sebastian Macaulay on Disney’s Million Dollar Arm (starring Jon Hamm and written by Thomas McCarthy) and with Kailey’s help Dan reviews The Two Faces of January which features Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac.
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.
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.
While the Bond 22 juggernaut threatens to crush everything in it’s path, a couple of plucky little indies try and offer a wholesome alternative (and stay out of harm’s way in the process). Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor occupies similar thematic ground to his debut The Station Agent in 2004, but unfurls in altogether less whimsical fashion.
Richard Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a depressed economics professor, fumbling around for some remaining connection to his recently deceased wife (he’s learning to play her piano which is a strikingly futile pursuit for a man in his 50s). Against his wishes he is sent to New York to present a paper he hasn’t written to a conference he has no interest in and he reluctantly has to return to the old apartment he and his wife used to share. Only now it’s occupied by a young illegal immigrant couple who are as surprised to see him as he is to see them – they’ve been conned into thinking it was vacant.
With much apology they pack up and leave but when Vale realises they have nowhere else to go he calls them back to let them stay. And so begins a lovely relationship and a hugely rewarding film, a film that never settles for cliché when (with just a little bit of extra digging) it can find some truth. When laid back drummer Tarek (winningly played by Haaz Sleiman) is arrested and slapped in detention pending deportation, The Visitor effortlessly changes tone and Vale finds someone to care for (and about) once again. One of the films of the year.
American Teen is nominally a documentary but could just as easily be filed in the horror section. An insincere little film about a cross-section of mid-Western American youth in the town of Warsaw, Indiana (a town which appears to have a value system as shallow as the gene pool that’s produced its next generation) American Teen initially provokes nothing so much as despair but eventually wrestles you into submission.
The five central characters are archetypes (the Geek, the Prom Queen, the Jock, the Heartthrob and the Rebel) that slowly emerge as real people despite enduring some tackily manipulative storytelling (not to mention some colossally bad parenting).
Of course, the pressures on these kids are all real – the pressure to be popular or successful, rather than simply be happy – but life wouldn’t have been nearly so complicated if they weren’t all wandering around with radio mics sharing every whispered secret with the world. Someone should have had a word with these kids about boundaries.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 3 December, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: American Teen was screened at the Paramount, in the big auditorium, and was pin sharp at the correct aspect ratio of 1.85:1. It looks like the Paramount’s problems with focus and brightness relate to ‘scope only (and possibly only one of the two projectors).
While the Film Festival takes up a justifiably huge chunk of time and mindspace during these two weeks the world of commercial cinema has hit back hard with two of the best films of the year.
Amazing Grace is a handsome period piece about the campaigning life of William Wilberforce, tireless toiler for social justice and what we now call human rights in the 19th century. The film focusses on his leadership of the movement to ban the transatlantic slave trade in the teeth of entrenched commercial and political opposition. 11 million African men, women and children were dragged from their homes, clapped in chains and forced to work in the plantations and refineries that fuelled the British Empire.
Wilberforce is played by Mr Fantastic (or Captain Hornblower, if you prefer) Ioan Gruffudd and, despite his lack of heavyweight credentials, he holds up nicely in competition with some of British cinema’s finest. The Great Gambon (most recently Dumbledore in Harry Potter), Rufus Sewell (The Illusionist), Toby Jones (Infamous), Stephen Campbell Moore (The History Boys) and the marvellous Albert Finney all get moments to rise above the occasionally clunky, exposition-heavy, script.
Finney, in particular, as the former slave-ship captain John Newton who actually wrote the hymn Amazing Grace (and the line “who saved a wretch like me” comes from deep inside a tortured conscience) is splendid.
Even better is Knocked Up, Judd Apatow’s brilliant follow-up to The 40 Year Old Virgin. Supporting actor in the earlier film, Seth Rogen, gets promoted to the lead as Ben Stone, a fun-loving layabout who gets his one night stand pregnant and then learns the hard way about responsibility, adulthood and love. Or you could say it’s about Katherine Heigl’s character Alison Scott, an ambitious reporter for the E! Channel who gets pregnant to a one night stand and then learns the hard way about family, sacrifice and pain.
Either way you choose it, Knocked Up is a wonderful film that shows a deep-seated love for life in all it’s gooey glory. The supporting cast are perfect, including (the sometimes patchy) Paul Rudd and Mrs Apatow, Leslie Mann, as the scary married couple our heroes use to alternately inspire or repel each other.
Judd Apatow made his name in television, writing and producing shows like “The Ben Stiller Show” and the great “Freaks and Geeks”. Another “Freaks and Geeks” alumni, Mike White, also has a feature out this week: Year of the Dog starring Molly Shannon. Shannon plays dowdy secretary Peggy whose beloved dog Pencil dies in somewhat mysterious circumstances leaving her alone to face the world.
In her attempts to replace Pencil with something (another dog, a man) she learns a little bit about the world and an awful lot about herself. Like Knocked Up there’s a contrast-couple, there to show our heroes what life might be like if only they gave up being themselves, in this case played by Laura Dern and Thomas McCarthy; and like Knocked Up there’s a lot of episodic comedy moments though with a much darker edge.
Year of the Dog is White’s first feature as director (after writing films like Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl and The School of Rock) and it seems as if he hasn’t directed this film so much as written and photographed it. That’s not to say that it isn’t enjoyable – it is. It’s just not terribly cinematic.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 25 July, 2007.
Nature of conflict: Year of the Dog opens at the Academy Cinema in Auckland on Weds 1 Aug. I do contract work for them designing and maintaining their website.