Most films go in one eye and out the other but some stick in your brain and won’t leave – for better or worse. John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Road” is one of those. Set in a depressing, grey, rainy, post-apocalyptic North American future (reminding me of nothing so much as this past Wellington summer) where nothing grows and the few remaining human beings forage for food – and most often find it in each other – dogged and decent Viggo Mortensen trudges through the wilderness with his young son, looking for something, anything, that might keep them alive.
The Road is about how we try and survive in the face of insurmountable odds, and how that physical survival might mean the loss of our own humanity. Mortensen’s wife (Charlize Theron) walks out into the lonely night, making what she thinks is a sacrifice but which he, clearly, thinks is little more than giving up. His son may well be the last repository of human kindness but that kindness might get them killed.
Welcome to the 2010 “cut out and keep” guide to video renting (or downloading or however you consume your home entertainment these days). I suggest you clip this article, fold it up, stick it in your wallet or purse and refer to it whenever you are at the video shop, looking for something to while away the long winter evenings of 2010.
First up, the ones to buy – the Keepers. These are the films that (if you share my psychology and some of my pathologies) you will cherish until you are old and the technology to play them no longer exists. Best film of the year remains Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. Mashing together several archetypal stories with a vivid visual style and a percussive energy, Slumdog may not represent India as it actually is but instead successfully evoked what India feels like, which is arguably more important. After Slumdog everything I saw seemed, you know, old-fashioned and nothing has been anywhere nearly as thrilling since. There are films you respect, films you admire and films you love. Slumdog is a film you adore. “Who wants to be a … miyonaire?” indeed.
Of all directors currently working in the Hollywood mainstream Michael Mann is arguably the greatest stylist. No one at the multiplex has more control of the pure aesthetics of filmmaking, from colour balance and composition through editing and sound, Mann’s films (from Thief in 1981 to the misguided reworking of Miami Vice in 2006) have had a European visual sensibility while remaining heavily embedded in the seamy world of crime and punishment.
Now Mann has turned back the clock and made a period crime film, set during the last great depression. Based on the true story of the legendary bank robber John Dillinger, whose gang cut a swathe across the Midwest in 1933 and 1934, Mann’s Public Enemies is a stylish and superbly crafted tale of a doomed hero pursued by a dogged lawman. Dillinger is portrayed by Johnny Depp with his usual swagger and his nemesis is the now sadly ubiquitous Christian Bale.
I can just imagine the Monday morning when a development executive stumbled across the script of The Hangover. It wouldn’t have taken him long to realise that he’d discovered modern Hollywood’s holy grail — a perfectly realised men-behaving-badly movie, so well-written and cleverly structured that he wouldn’t need any big stars or a marquee director. By morning tea he would have been gone for the day, safe in the knowledge that his targets for the year were going be met and (no doubt inspired by the script he’d just bought) he would be dropping a big bunch of credit card on hookers and blow. Probably.
The script is perfect in its elegant and streamlined construction (screenwriter-porn, no less): Four friends head to Vegas for a bachelor party. We leave them at the first Jägermeister shot, only to rejoin them at dawn as they emerge squinting into the light. They’ve gained a baby and tiger and lost a tooth — and a buddy. The film is all about putting the pieces of the night back together and it’s clever, filthy, loose and charming. The Hangover is indeed the Citizen Kane of all getting-fucked-up-in-Vegas movies — so supremely pre-eminent that (let us hope) we never have to watch another of its kind ever again. Of course, The Hangover 2 is already in pre-production.
Back in 1984, Russell Mulcahy made Razorback, the tale of a giant mutant pig terrorising a small outback town, and his next film is going to be about a man turned into a koala by an ancient aboriginal curse, both of which make Resident Evil 3: Extinction look like Anna Karenina. You don’t need to have seen the previous two ResidentEvil films or played the video game (I hadn’t) as the plot is pretty simple: zombies = bad; supermodels = good; genetic engineering = very bad (unless you are genetically engineering supermodels which = very good). Stoic action-hero Milla Jovovich is photographed using the Chanel filter whenever she isn’t slicing up the un-dead and the film is entertaining when there’s action and tedious when there isn’t.
In Fracture, hotshot young actor Ryan Gosling plays a hotshot young Deputy DA, about to make the leap to a big-time corporate gig but first he has to convict Anthony Hopkins who has just shot his wife in the head. Now, IANAL but Fracture seems pretty shonky from a procedural and legal point of view. Can the LA County court system really send an attempted murderer to trial less than a fortnight after the offence? I doubt it, but that condensed time-frame is vital for Goslings’ character motivation and therefore the rest of the plot, so best to turn a blind-eye to the detail and focus on two great screen actors enjoying themselves.
Film of the week by some distance is Away From Her by the sublimely gifted Sarah Polley. In snowy Ontario Julie Christie is Fiona, a woman struggling with the onset of Alzheimers Disease. Husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent) seems to be struggling even more, however, and when she decides to go in to residential care he feels that, perhaps, he is being punished by her for past transgressions.
Christie is sensational but the revelation for me is Pinsent, a living legend in Canada but rarely seen elsewhere. His is an extraordinary performance, fully investing his character with all of the painful mash of love, loss and guilt that Polley’s eloquently spare script requires. His raw and confused emotions are not just etched in his craggy face but into his ever-moistening eyes.
Glenn Standring’s Perfect Creature is a respectable genre effort, although devoid of much originality. In a steampunk-flavoured alternative reality New Zealand, genetically engineered vampires known as Brothers control society via religion. When one of their order goes berko and starts eating citizens, the supposedly delicate balance between the species/races/whatever is threatened. Deputy Brother Silus (Dougray Scott) teams up with the cheekbones of Detective Lilly (Saffron Burrows) to bring the fiend to justice.
One of the most startling career re-inventions of recent times must belong to screenwriter Steven Knight who until 2002 was a TV hack best known for being Jasper Carrott’s chief gag-man and creator of Who Wants To be a Millionaire? The script for the excellent Dirty Pretty Things launched his feature career and he now delves even deeper in to the seedy underbelly of gangland London with Eastern Promises, starring Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts. Watts plays a London hospital midwife and (helpfully) daughter of a Russian. A young girl dies in childbirth on her watch but the diary she was carrying provides a clue to her identity and leads Watts to the Russian mafia kingpin (Armin Mueller-Stahl), his nutjob son (Vincent Cassell) and the son’s driver (Viggo). Director Cronenberg steers us through the murk effectively enough and there’s one thrilling set-piece in a turkish bath which confirms his talent for cinematic violence (if it was ever in doubt). Final irony: the three Russians are played by a German, a Frenchman and a Dane.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 31 October, 2007.
Notes on screening conditions: Away From Her was screened in Penthouse One and the shutter timing is still out and getting worse. There are also signs of damage to the screen (from something behind it?) on the right-hand side. It was also the most uncomfortable seat I have sat in this year. This is all a bit of a shame as Penthouse Three (the new one) is perfectly fine but it looks like standards aren’t being maintained everywhere.