Wes Anderson may be the currently working director least suited to using 3D. His scenes are often flat tableaux with his characters spread out laterally across the screen. If he was telling the story of Moonrise Kingdom 1,000 years ago it would be a tapestry, like Bayeux, and I think he’d probably be OK with that.
That visual style suited the puppetry of the delightful Fantastic Mr Fox but this new film populates the flat, theatrical, planes with living, breathing human actors – not just actors, movie stars (including Bruce Willis and Ed Norton).
Every week on Cinematica – the movie podcast I co-host with Simon Werry and Kailey Carruthers – we sign-off each film with a two-word review. It’s a gag, of course, but no more reductive than “two thumbs up” or “two stars”, and it’s become a bit of a meme with listeners supplying their own – often extremely good – contributions.
And seeing as I missed a column through illness last week, I have a feeling that my two-word reviews might come in handy helping us to catch up. So, for the found-footage High School party-gone-wrong movie Project X for example, my two-word review is “Toxic Waste”. The third sequel in the vampires vs lycans stylised action franchise, Underworld: Awakening gets “Strobe Headache”. And for the notoriously low budget found-footage posession-horror The Devil Inside you’ll have to make do with “Didn’t Watch”.
Which brings us to the good stuff (and there’s plenty of it about at the moment). Brother Number One is a superb and affecting NZ doco about trans-atlantic rower Rob Hamill’s attempts to find out the truth about his brother Kerry’s disappearance at the hands of the Khmer Rouge régime in Cambodia. This is a film to remind you that the great tides of history aren’t tides at all and if you look closely enough you see millions of individual stories – of heartbreak, tragedy and redemption.
In a week when film fans are mourning the passing of the French great Claude Chabrol (80 year old co-pioneer of the French New Wave) it’s pleasing to report that there’s still someone in France making watchable movies. In fact, Jacques Audiard’s last two films have been absolute crackers (Read My Lips, The Beat My Heart Skipped) and his latest is easily one of the best you will see this or any year.
In Un prophète (A Prophet), Audiard has managed to make an intimate epic, a film about grand themes while (for the most part) never leaving the confines of the French prison where our hero is incarcerated. He is Malik El Djabena (newcomer Tahar Rahim) and he’s a nineteen year old petty criminal inside for assaulting a cop. In exchange for the protection of the Corsican mob leader who runs the joint (Niels Arestrup) he murders an Arab informer, an incident that will literally haunt him throughout the film.
Full disclosure: I wrote a play about Michael Jackson once (“Dirty Doris”, BATS 1995) so I’ll confess to always being interested in the real character behind the tabloid and music video façade so the arrival of This is It (what some have described as a cheap cash-in flick) is of more than passing interest to me.
And of all the possible adjectives available to describe the film “cheap” would seem to be the least appropriate. This behind-the-scenes documentary, made up of footage intended for “Making of” extras on an eventual DVD plus handicam footage for Jackson’s own personal archive, shows a dedicated bunch of seriously talented people preparing a huge stage show for an audience of demanding fans. However, no one involved is more demanding than the star of the show MJ himself.
In the film we see Jackson and his crack team rehearsing the massive series of 50 London shows that were supposedly to mark his retirement from live performance. Pushing 50, with a body battered from years of illness and touring, suffering from anxiety-induced insomnia, Jackson knew that audiences only wanted the moonwalking King of Pop persona, an act that he wouldn’t be able to maintain much longer. So, he wanted to go out with a bang, with something memorable, and he was evidently very serious about putting on a truly amazing show.
Oh, what kind of year is 2008 that has two Coen Brothers films within it? In February I was swooning over No Country for Old Men and now, just a few short months later, I’ve been treated to Burn After Reading, a scathing and bitter comedy about modern American ignorance. It’s a vicious, savage, despairing and brilliant farce: full of wonderful characters who are at the same time really awful people.
John Malkovich is Osbourne Cox, a failed CIA analyst who loses a disk containing his memoirs. It’s found by Hardbodies gym staff Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt, who decide to blackmail him so that she can pay for some unnecessary cosmetic procedures. Meanwhile (and there’s a lot of meanwhiles), Malkovich’s wife (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with sex addict George Clooney, who is cheating on her, and his wife, with Internet one night stands (that include the lonely McDormand). The disk ends up at the Russian Embassy, Pitt ends up in the Chesapeake and the only truly nice person in the whole film ends up with a hatchet in his head.
It’s no accident that this collection of mental and spiritual pygmies can be found populating Washington D.C. Over the last eight years it has become the world centre of incompetence, venality, short-sightedness and political expedience and the film plays as an enraged satire about the end of the American Empire. We can only hope.
The self-indulgent partnership between Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe gets another trot out in Body of Lies, a laboured action-thriller about anti-terrorism in the Middle East. Half-decent Leonardo DiCaprio is the lead. He plays honourable field agent Roger Ferris, hunting the Osama-like Al Saleem from Iraq to Jordan via Amsterdam and Langley. Crowe spends most of the film coaching DiCaprio via cellphone and a good olé boy Southern accent. The twist in this film is that he is a boorish, ignorant, arrogant oaf who fails to appreciate that winning hearts and minds is essential to win the war on terror: DiCaprio’s character, an arabic speaker with an appreciation for the region and its people, is continually being hung out to dry by his bosses who simply don’t think the Middle East is worth anything more than the oil that lies beneath it.
Unfortunately for Body of Lies (a terrible, meaningless title), the whole film is thick with cliché and while Scott’s eye for a set-piece remains keen his ear for dialogue is still made of tin.
Another terrible nothing title (but for a better film) is The Duchess. A naïve young Spencer girl is plucked from Althorp to marry a powerful older man. She soon finds that it is not a love match and that her emotionally closed off husband sees her as a baby factory while he enjoys life with his mistress. Our heroine uses her celebrity to bring attention to political causes and falls in love with a handsome young man, but happiness and freedom is always too far away. Sounds familiar, I know, but this story isn’t set in the 1990’s but in the 18th century and this Spencer isn’t Diana, but her eerily similar ancestor Georgiana (Keira Knightley).
Knightley is fine as the spirited, but eventually broken, young woman; Ralph Fiennes has good moments as the brutish Duke of Devonshire and Charlotte Rampling delivers another icy turn as Georgiana’s calculating mother. The Duchess is a fine history lesson with some nice observations: my favourite is the paparazzi at every social occasion, pencils sharpened to sketch the scandals as they unfold.
Sadly, I have been too busy in recent weeks to preview any of the titles in this year’s Italian Film Festival but the programme looks a good and interesting one as always. The films in the Italian Festival have always leaned towards the commercial and this year is no different. Crowd pleasing comedies like The Littlest Thing rub shoulders with romances like Kiss Me Baby, dramas (The Unknown Woman) and thrillers: Secret Journey. My pick looks like it could be a combination of all those genres, the romantic black comedy Night Bus. Moving to the Embassy this year should do the event the power of good but it’s a pity about the poorly proofed programme though.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 15 October, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: All three films were screened at the Empire in Island Bay. Body of Lies and The Duchess were at public screenings and Burn After Reading was the Sunday night print check (for staff), so thanks to the Empire people for inviting me to that.
As recounted by celebrated neurologist Oliver Sacks in a recent New Yorker, amnesia is a fascinating condition. In the article he tells the story of classical musician Clive Wearing who, due to enchaphalitis more than 20 years ago, can retain new memories for no longer than a few seconds. The devastation of his case is transcended by two things: the love of his wife (which he is aware of even though he sees her as if for the first time every day) and his musical ability which remains complete.
In Hollywood, amnesia (like other disorders) is rarely portrayed as a tragic condition with serious and fascinating psychological impacts but instead is usually just a plot device. New thriller Unknown, starring Jim Caviezel, Greg Kinnear and Barry Pepper, tries a little bit of both.
In a remote abandoned chemical warehouse five men wake up with no memories of who they are or how they got there. Two of the group have been kidnapped, the others are the gang. But who?
While all the evidence points to Caviezel being one of the kidnappers (he wasn’t tied up at the beginning for a start) he doesn’t feel like one and, despite the shifting allegiances and Lord of the Flies power-plays, he attempts to bind the group together so they can all escape before the ringleader returns with the ransom. It’s an interesting existentialist provocation although, in the end, further psychological insight is sacrificed in favour of yet another plot twist.
Insight is what forensic psychologist Tilda Swinton is after in Stephanie Daley. Heavily pregnant, and still mourning the loss of a previous unborn child, she is asked to interview the eponymous schoolgirl (Amber Tamblyn) who is accused of concealing her own pregnancy and then murdering the new-born baby. Her examination will decide the fate of the timid young Christian girl who may indeed be too innocent to realize what a drunken date-rape can lead to. Stephanie Daley is a well acted drama with a fine sense of place, located in snowy upstate New York, and a lot going on under the surface.
Back at the multiplex, Rush Hour 3 is one of the poorest excuses for entertainment it is been my misfortune to witness. And to think that part-timer Chris Tucker was paid $25m to star in it (a fee which evidently did not require any time at the gym to prepare). Jackie Chan is showing his age too. Abject.
I spent most of the time watching La Vie En Rose thinking that I’d seen the film somewhere before. A beautifully art directed recreation of the life of a troubled artist from the wrong side of the tracks, devastated by drug addiction and guilt, it could have been Ray or Walk The Line except for the fact that little Edith Piaf didn’t have time for the redemption and triumph that the Hollywood biopics demand.
Piaf was an extraordinary character, a huge and vibrant voice in a frail and tiny frame. Writer-director Olivier Dahan makes consistently interesting choices (particularly a death-bed montage at the end which amazingly contains nothing that we have seen before) and Marion Cotillard plays Piaf with all the fierce and demented self-destructive energy she can summon up. She’s a force of nature and it is one of the performances of the year.
Finally, superb documentary Deep Water finally gets the promised commercial release and I urge you not to miss it. And, if you already saw it at the Festival check it out again as it’s quite a different film second time around.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 3 October, 2007.
Full disclosure: Unknown is distributed in New Zealand by Arkles Entertainment who pay me money to do stuff for them from time to time.