As usual, the vagaries of holiday deadlines mean that, just as you are arriving back at work to gleefully greet the New Year, here I am to tell you all about 2012. The best way to use this page is to clip it out, fold it up and put it in your pocket ready for your next visit to the video shop — that way you won’t go wrong with your renting. Trust me — I’m a professional.
But this year I have a problem. Usually I manage to restrict myannualpicks to films that were commercially released to cinemas. I’ve always felt that it wasn’t fair to mention films that only screened in festivals — it’s frustrating to be told about films that aren’t easy to see and it makes it difficult for you to join in and share the love. This year, though, if I take out the festival-only films the greatness is hard to spot among the only “good”.
As usual, I have eschewed a top ten in favour of my patented categories: Keepers, Watch Again, Mentioned in Dispatches and Shun At All Costs. In 2012, only two of my nine Keepers (films I wish to have close to me forever) made it into commercial cinemas and one of them isn’t even really a film.
In Hope Springs, Meryl Streep proves once again that not only can she play any woman, she can also play everywoman. She’s Kay, an unfulfilled Nebraska housewife, married for 31 years to accountant Tommy Lee Jones and resigned to sleeping in separate bedrooms and cooking him his eggs every morning while he reads the paper. Except, she’s not resigned, she’s become determined. Determined to prove that marriage doesn’t just fizzle out after the kids leave home, that the past doesn’t have to equal the future.
So, she signs them both up for “intensive couples counselling” with friendly therapist Steve Carell, in picturesque seaside Maine. Jones is gruffly resistant, of course, and it’s his deadpan sarcasm that prompts nost of the early comedy (their fumbling attempts to spice up their life provides the rest). As a comedy, Hope Springs is extremely gentle — much more gentle than the trailer would have you believe — but that gentleness suits the delicate subject and the script (by Vanessa Taylor) actually burrows in pretty deeply to a subject that, I’m sure, is pretty close to home for lots of viewers.
It’s Back to BOURNE with Jeremy Renner; Meryl Streep gets it on with Tommy Lee Jones in HOPE SPRINGS; Hirokazu Koreeda’s I WISH is a little gem and we talk to the directors of the New Zealand documentary HOW FAR IS HEAVEN.
Of all the remakes, sequels, franchises and comic book adaptations we are being offered this winter Captain America: The First Avenger is the one least likely to send a shiver of excitement down a Kiwi filmgoer’s spine. And yet, from relatively modest beginnings a half decent adventure film grows — it isn’t going to change the way you think and feel about anything but Captain America at least won’t make you want to run screaming for the exits in embarrassment and shame.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans from Fantastic Four) is a weedy, sickly kid from Brooklyn — digitally de-hanced if that’s the opposite of enhanced — who desperately wants to fight the Nazis for Uncle Sam. After several humiliating rejections kindly scientist Stanley Tucci enlists him in an experimental super-soldier programme, fills him full of what looks like blue Powerade and turns him into a muscle-bound, fast-healing, über-grunt.
It’s nice to be reminded every now and then that going to to the movies is supposed to be fun. The first Kung Fu Panda film was a boisterous and entertaining treat (“resembles an eight-year-old’s bedroom while they are throwing all their toys around” I said in 2008) and the latest version is an improvement on that, adding a layer of sentiment to the amusing hijinks. It also trucks along for a nothing-wasted 91 minutes and should keep adults and not-yet-adults well and truly amused.
Panda Po (Jack Black) became the unlikely Dragon Warrior in the first film and now has rock star status among the anthropomorphic citizenry. Along with allies “The Five”, he defends the innocent from tyranny in between (and often during) meals. A new technology and a shadowy figure from Po’s past threaten the peace and force our hero to grapple with the strangely unanswered questions about his childhood and how a panda came to be adopted by a goose in the first place.
I think we can safely call a halt to these semi-annual Hulk movies now — the new one is good enough that we can all move on (Ant-Man is evidently next). The Incredible Hulk is Marvel’s attempt to wrestle back the franchise that got away from them under Ang Lee in 2003 and eventually re-unify the Marvel universe under the suave, unstoppable box office force of Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man. To retrieve The Hulk, Marvel cast Hollywood’s weediest leading man, Edward Norton (Fight Club), not realising that Norton also has a reputation as a bit of a meddler who then re-wrote the script and sat in on the editing.
The result, as you might expect, is a bit of a noisy mess, but far from disastrous. After a splendidly condensed opening title sequence which takes us through the back-story of the original experiments that Gamma-ized poor Bruce Banner, we meet him on the run in Brazil, labouring in a bottling plant, taking anger management classes and collaborating online with a mysterious scientist who may hold the key to a cure. Unfortunately for him, the General (a suitably comic-book performance by William Hurt) arrives with a squad to take him home. This makes him angry, of course, and unleashes the green beast within.
If anything, it is more respectful of the TV series than the comic book, featuring cameos from original Hulk Lou Ferrigno and a clunky posthumous cameo from TV Banner Bill Bixby. In fact, looking back on it the film spends more time honouring the past than it does driving into the future, often falling prey to cutesy touches like having Norton Anti-Virus fire up when Banner logs on to a computer. Chief Villain Tim Roth looks like Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, which makes his character name, The Abomination, perfectly apt.
Paul Haggis created the Oscar-winning Crash back in 2004 and, after helping reinvent Bond in Casino Royale, has gone back to the political well with the heartfelt In the Valley of Elah, starring Tommy Lee Jones. Jones plays former Army investigator Hank Deerfield. His son has just returned from Iraq but immediately gone AWOL so Hank travels across Texas to find him. What he discovers shakes his faith in his country and the military and (I’m guessing) is supposed to have some metaphoric weight about the state of the nation and the world and it probably does. I was one of many who found Crash to be appalling, un-watchable, rubbish but Elah (perhaps because it doesn’t try and do so much) is better.
While Haggis wears his heart on his sleeve, what he really needs is a copy editor on his shoulder. Someone needs to tell him that when you cast someone as soulful as Tommy Lee Jones you can just let him tell the audience what is going on with his eyes — you don’t then have to then verbalise it in the next shot. Probably an easy mistake to make when you are a writer first and a director second…
If Haggis needs a copy editor then M. Night Shyamalan needs a security guard on the door of his office, holding the keys to his typewriter. The Happening is an eco-thriller about a mysterious “event” that causes people across the North East of America to lose their minds and then do away with themselves. Among those caught up in the mess is high school science teacher Mark Wahlberg who thinks the mysterious disappearance of America’s bee population might have something to do with it.
Shyamalan has obvious talent as a director: he has an eye for an arresting image and has seen enough Hitchcock to construct effective set-pieces but he can’t write dialogue that human beings can actually say which continually drops the audience out of the moment. Luckily, whenever I lost connection to the story, there was Zooey Deschanel (as Wahlberg’s wife), whose electric blue eyes should be categorised as an alternative fuel source.
Outsourced is returning to cinemas after a brief turn at the World Cinema Showcase. It’s a beguiling tale of a Seattle call centre manager (Josh Hamilton) who has to go to India to train his replacement when the novelty company he works for relocates “fulfilment” to Gwaripur. The usual cross-cultural misunderstandings occur but the characters all grow on you, much like India grows on our hero.
Finally, legendary social commentator Adam Sandler takes on another pressing political issue (after gay marriage in I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry) and helps solve the conflict in the Middle East with You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, a hit and miss comedy that is mostly hit for a change. Sandler is the Zohan, number one Israeli counter-terrorist operative, who is tired of the endless conflict and yearns to emulate his hero (Paul Mitchell), cut hair in New York and make everything “silky smooth”. So he fakes his own death and smuggles his way in to America where the only job he can get is in a Palestinian salon. His unorthodox methods with the ladies soon make him very popular indeed but the conflict is never far away.
There are plenty of jokes per minute and the relentless teasing of Israelis for their love of fizzy drinks, hummus, disco and hacky-sack is pretty entertaining.