Andrew Dominik was born in Wellington but shipped out at the age of two for Australia. We really need to claim him back as he’s one of the most intriguing directors currently working. Perhaps that should be “rarely working” as his latest, Killing Them Softly, is only his third feature credit in 12 years. Chopper turned heads in 2000 and got him to Hollywood. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was an elegiac adaptation of a great novel, the screen version echoing great late-period westerns like Heaven’s Gate and The Long Riders.
In Killing Them Softly, Dominik remains in genre territory but again he is transcending and subverting it. It’s a gangster flick featuring a bunch of familiar figures – James Gandolfini (The Sopranos), Ray Liotta (Goodfellas), Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom). You see those names on the cast list and you think you know what you’re going to get, but here they stretch out in suprising directions, revealing layers of humanity no less ugly than the clichéd bang-bang we are used to, but truer, sadder and ultimately more trenchant.
Back in 1968 the world was amazed to see a simian-looking creature displaying rudimentary (and yet clearly) human qualities. But enough about my birth, I’m here to talk about Planet of the Apes, the nightmarish vision of a world turned upside down: apes that speak, humans that are mute and enslaved, orangutans doing “science”. And of course, the big shock back then was that “it was Earth all along” – we’d caused this catastrophe ourselves with our environmental pig-headedness and our nuclear arrogance. The success of that blisteringly effective original prompted several sequels to diminished effect – although the sight (in Beneath the Planet of the Apes) of Charlton Heston pushing the final atomic button to destroy the planet in disgust at the whole sorry mess was seared on to my childhood brain forever.
In 2001 the series got the re-boot treatment courtesy of Tim Burton, a miscast Mark Wahlberg (when is he ever not?) and the final triumphant display of latex ape mask technology. Now the apes are back and there’s no sign of rubber anywhere to be found – except in some of the human performances perhaps. Rise of the Planet of the Apes serves as a prequel to the Burton film rather than a total from scratch effort – although there’s no equivalent in the original series – and the film does a terrific job of setting up a story that many of us already know as well as fondly honouring many details from the original series.
It’s the weirdest coincidence. In two out of the three films I saw this week someone was shot in the ear. Seriously, go figure. Since I started this gig I’ve seen more than 400 films and no one has ever been shot in the ear and then, just like that, two come along at once.
That’s the only thing that connects two very different but very good films: Courtney Hunt’s debut thriller Frozen River and David Gordon Green’s very funny Pineapple Express. Frozen River is being sold as a thriller, and it does have some very tense edge-of-your-seat moments, but it’s actually a gritty drama about America’s rural poor with plenty of understanding and forgiveness running through its heart.
We open on a hard-faced woman’s tears. Melissa Leo plays Ray, whose husband Troy has given in to his gambling addiction and scarpered with the balloon-payment on their new trailer and it’s two days before Christmas. She’s bringing up her two children in a tiny trailer down a muddy driveway in a small town on the snowy border between New York state and Quebec, working part time in the Yankee Dollar store and trying to make ends meet.
Searching for the deadbeat husband at the local, Mohawk-run, bingo hall she meets Lila Littlewolf who is driving Troy’s abandoned car. Lila (Misty Upham) is a depressed young woman, living in her own lonely trailer, who intends to use the car to bring a few illegal immigrants in to the country, crossing the frozen river at the Indian reservation where the State Troopers can’t go. Needing money (and having rights to the car), Ray agrees to help, gambling everything she has on making a couple of trips so she can get her family through Christmas.
Gambling is the thread running through the film – the First Nation Mohawk people fund their programmes and maintain their independence through gambling and the working poor like Ray gamble every day that the few choices they have won’t see them falling through the cracks in the ice – metaphorically or in reality.
A brilliant debut, though not tightly-plotted enough to really qualify as a thriller, Frozen River is up there with 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days as an earnest representation of people who would otherwise be invisible to us.
Rogen also stars as pot-head process server Dale Denton, who witnesses a murder and, in his panic, hides out with his dealer Saul (James Franco). Unfortunately for both of them, this brings the wrath of the pot-mob down on both of them and they are chased across suburban Glendale by a motley crew of ruffians and hoodlums, all the while making good use of the herb that gives the film its title.
Rogen and Franco both came to producer Judd Apatow’s attention during the short-lived but well-loved tv show “Freaks & Geeks” (which also starred Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s Jason Segal) and their easy rapport is a strength that gets the film through some of its shakier moments.
Stocktaking the new digital 3D realm, we have now had an animated original (Beowulf), a couple of concert movies (including the brilliant U2), a live-action dud (Journey to the Center of the Earth) and now we see the results when Hollywood goes back to the vault and re-masters an older film for the new technology. The Nightmare Before Christmas from 1993 is an excellent introduction to the process (if you haven’t been tempted before). It was always a vivid and original production (watched over by Tim Burton) and the 3D really makes it pop.
Jack Skellington is the king of Halloween but is jaded and bored. Discovering Christmas-town, he decides that he wants Christmas all to himself and hi-jacks it (kidnapping Santa Claus in the process). Animated (using similar stop-motion techniques to the Aardman films) by Henry Selick, Nightmare is wonderful to look at and not too long for kids, although if you have little tolerance for musical thee-ater no amount of glorious 3D will counteract Danny Elfman’s soundtrack. Me, I loved it.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 29 October, 2008.
Due to exams I skipped a week writing for the CT so there was no scheduled entry for 5 November. You haven’t missed anything. Now, I have to start catching up on movies before I’m swamped by the Christmas rush. This year has gone by so fast.
2008 is shaping up to be a year of great films about people being beastly to each other and the first cab off the rank is Tim Burton’s majestic adaptation of Sondheim’s broadway opera Sweeney Todd. Based on the true-ish story of the Victorian barber who murders his customers to provide fresh meat for his girlfriend’s pies, Sweeney Todd is positively Shakespearian in scale – meaty, savage, sinister and poignant. Johnny Depp plays the talented scissor-man who returns to London 15 years after he was transported to the colonies by crooked Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) who had desires on his pretty wife. Consumed with a passion for revenge Todd goes back to work above the shop selling London’s worst pies, made by the redoubtable Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). There, more by accident than design, they discover that his skills with a razor might be profitable in more ways than one.
Sondheim’s music and lyrics are as good as any other writing for the stage in the last century and the film version honours that talent unconditionally. When young Toby (Ed Sanders) sings “Not While I’m Around” (probably the most beautiful song ever written) to Mrs Lovett you can see the look in her eyes that shows he has just sealed his own fate, the temperature in the theatre seemed to drop a few degrees. Not just anyone can pull that off.
The best of the rest at the moment is Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, a pacy and observant look at the life of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), Harlem’s most notorious and successful drug dealer of the 1970s. Russell Crowe plays Richie Roberts, the only honest cop in New York. It’s an interesting story well told by three charismatic film personalities.
After the Wedding is a lovely, layered drama from Denmark starring the watchable Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale) as an aid worker at an Indian orphanage who is summoned back to Copenhagen by a mysterious billionaire (Rolf Lassgård). Lassgård wants to donate enough money to save the programme – millions of dollars – but there are strings attached. Those strings turn out to be less nefarious than they seem at first but the choice that Mikkelsen’s Jacob has to make is still a heart-breaking one. Totally recommended.
Totally un-recommended is the Australian comedy-drama Clubland about an unusual showbiz family led by domineering mother Brenda Blethyn. Asinine in conception and horrible in execution, it struggles to get one good performance out the entire cast put together.
Death at a Funeral isn’t much better, although a couple of performances (Peter Dinklage and a doughy Matthew McFadyen) rise above the cheap and nasty script. The funeral is for McFadyen’s father and various friends and family members have assembled to form a quorum of English stereotypes. Standard farce elements like mistaken identity and accidental drug-taking are shoe-horned together with the help of some poo jokes.
Alien vs. Predator: Requiem managed to disappear from my memory about as soon as I left the theatre with my ears still ringing from the noise. An Alien pod being transported across the galaxy crash lands in Colorado and starts laying eggs – cause that’s just how they roll. A creature from the Predator home-world tries to clean up the mess and a whole bunch of random citizens get caught in the middle. All the signature moments from the original Alien (the chest-bursting, the almost-kissing a whimpering young woman) are repeated often, to diminishing effect and, I know I sometimes see cinematic racism everywhere, is it really necessary for both malevolent extra-terrestrial races to look like big black men with dreadlocks?
There’s a factory in China, I’m sure, stamping out films like Elsa & Fred on a weekly basis, making subtle cultural and generational changes where necessary but preserving the formula like it’s Coca Cola. And fair enough as these films will always sell: un-challenging, easy to decipher, vaguely life-affirming. Elsa (China Zorrilla) is a batty old woman in a Madrid apartment block. Fred (Manuel Alexandre) is the quiet widower who moves in opposite. She decides to point him back the direction of life and he tries to make her dreams come true before it is too late.
Finally, Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution is an extremely well-made but overlong erotic thriller set in Japanese-occupied China during WWII. Stunning newcomer Wei Tang plays Wong Chia Chi, persuaded in a moment of youthful, patriotic weakness to join a student resistance group. She is sent undercover to try and woo the mysterious Mr Yee (Tony Leung) who is a senior official collaborating with the Japanese occupation forces. Unfortunately, for them both he is interested but a challenging mark and it is several years before she can get close enough to him (and believe me she gets very close) for the resistance to strike. Ang Lee is the poet of the stolen glance and he is in very good form – I just wish it hadn’t taken quite so long to get going.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 23 January, 2008.
Nature of Conflict: After the Wedding is distributed in NZ and Australia by Arkles Entertainment who I do some work for; Clubland is distributed in Australia and NZ by Palace whose NZ activities are looked after by the excellent Richard Dalton, who is a good mate.
At present Reading Cinemas are not offering press passes to the Capital Times. This means that their exclusive releases (such as Cloverfield) will go un-reviewed unless I can work something out with them or the distributor. Maybe I’ll just download them …