[pullquote]R‑rated these days appears to mean lots of unnecessary cursing and comic male nudity.[/pullquote]Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 was a surprise smash-hit in 2009 and his follow-up, Elysium, is what we call ‘eagerly awaited’. Watching it I was reminded of the great strengths of that first film: a vividly created future society, dysfunctional yet plausible; a great plot setup with a genuine dilemma for the central character. Then I remembered the third act of District 9 – one long fight/chase/fight. And so it proves with Elysium. Wasted potential as – like so many films this year – the film is resolved by who can punch harder rather than who can think better. I have lots of other problems with it but that’s the main one.
As I sit here typing, I can hear the sounds of a Wellington summer all around me – the rain pouring on to the deck outside and the wind howling through the trees. Is this why local film distributors release so much product over the Christmas/New Year period? Perhaps it’s just climate and nothing to do with the Oscars at all? Anyhow, here’s a quick summary of what’s been dished out at local cinemas in descending order of greatness.
First up, Ang Lee’s glowing 3D adaptation of Yann Martell’s Life of Pi, storming the local box offices and deservedly so. Ravishing to look at – and making profound rather than novelty use of the extra depth available – Lee’s film manages to distil the essence of the book’s message even if the ambiguous ending proves less satisfying cinematically than literarily. Dreamy. I was particularly taken by the conscious recreation of the book’s original cover in one scene, even to the extent of changing the film’s aspect ratio for that single shot.
It’s extremely quiet in terms of new releases in cinemas at the moment. The major international distributors are keeping well clear of the overwhelming force that will be The Dark Knight Rises and the indies know that all the arthouse money is going into film festival tickets.
This year – for a change – I’m not booking in advance for anything. There’s so much goodness in the programme – and my faith in serendipity needs a bit of a boost – that I’ll just see what happens to be playing whenever I get a spare moment and then give it a go. With well over 150 individual films and short programmes to choose from I’m sure there’ll always be something on that’s going to challenge and enlighten me.
It helps that, thanks to festival management, I’ve already seen ten of what’s on offer – ten films that might be easy to miss when flicking from one end of the 80 page book to the other. In Rampart, Woody Harrelson finally lays to rest the ghosts of Cheers with a lacerating performance as an LA cop who’s as tormented and corrupted as Harvey Keitel’s legendary Bad Lieutenant. Collaborating once again with writer-director Oren Moverman (the brilliant and under-seen The Messenger), Harrelson plays a character so awful that 108 minutes later you are amazed to find you actually care about him.
Of all the massively successful franchise conversions from best-selling-books-that-I-haven’t‑read, I’m pleased to say that I like this Hunger Games film the best. I’ve been justifiably scornful of the Harry Potter films in these pages and downright disdainful of Twilight but – while still not reaching out much to me personally – I can say that Hunger Games actually succeeds much more on its own cinematic terms.
Jennifer Lawrence basically repeats her Academy Award-nominated turn from Winter’s Bone as a plucky Appalachian teen forced to risk everything to protect her young sister while her traumatised mother remains basically useless. In this film, though, the enemy isn’t toothless meth dealers but the full force of a fascist state where the 99% is enslaved in various “districts” and forced to produce whatever the decadent 1% back in Capitol City require in order to keep them in their Klaus Nomi-inspired makeup and hair.
Is it too early to suggest that we might be living in a golden age of cinema? Think of the filmmakers working in the commercial realm these days who have distinctive voices, thrilling visual sensibilities, solid intellectual (and often moral) foundations, a passion for combining entertainment with something more – along with an abiding love of cinema in all its strange and wonderful forms.
Jonze made his name with oddball stories like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation and the first thing you notice about his interpretation of the beloved Maurice Sendak children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, is that it simply doesn’t resemble anything else you’ve ever seen. With the help of writer Dave Eggers (the novel “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”, Away We Go) he has used the book as a starting point for a beautiful and sensitive meditation on what it is like to be a child (a boy child specifically).
This week, three films which trade on a twist or revelation (to varying degrees of success). First, Seven Pounds reunites the creative team behind 2006’s excellent The Pursuit of Happyness and is this year’s annoying entry in the “Will Smith Serious Movie Contest”. Smith plays the mysterious benefactor Ben Thomas who appears to be looking for deserving strugglers who need a helping hand (like a researcher for “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”) but as the circumstances are slowly unravelled a darker picture emerges.
Put together with considerable talent and passion by all concerned (supporting performances from Barry Pepper and Woody Harrelson are worth mentioning), Seven Pounds suffers from a maddening script and, frankly, a totally misguided conception which someone should have put a stop to much sooner. Yet, it continues to look beautiful, and the performances remain first rate, right up until the most lunatic of loose ends are tied up and you are released once again, bewildered, in to the Wellington sunshine.
Seven Pounds is reminiscent of Iñárritu’s masterpiece 21 Grams and is similarly about atonement – but the only atonement required here should come from screenwriter Grant Nieporte (whose most high-profile previous credit is an episode of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”).
There’s an example of real writing on display in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, an adaptation of his own stage play which was produced at Circa last year. In the Bronx in 1964, a progressive young Catholic priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is accused by harridan headmistress Meryl Streep of abusing 12-year-old pupil Donald Miller. In a series of lengthy scenes between Hoffman, Streep, witness Sister James (Amy Adams) and the boy’s mother (little-known Viola Davis more than holding her own in this heavyweight company) the investigation is played out.
Only it isn’t really an investigation – just a hunch followed by political and emotional manoeuvring to provoke the downfall of a possibly innocent man. There are many complexities to take account of: Miller is the only black child in a school full of Irish and Italian kids, he’s a sensitive soul looking for a father figure, Hoffman insists he is simply innocently tending his flock. None of this is enough for the sour old Principal who believes her knowledge of human nature trumps all.
When Doubt was playing on Broadway many critics drew parallels with the Bush II rush to war in Iraq, based on faith rather than facts (which Shanley hasn’t denied), but with a little distance the broader implications of faith versus doubt are allowed some air.
Shanley hasn’t directed a film since the under-appreciated Joe Versus the Volcano back in 1990 and he proves capable enough here, although the film never really escapes the stage. But it’s an intelligent, well-acted, thought-provoking little drama and we should be grateful for it.
The most successful twist of the week comes in the unassuming Italian drama My Brother is an Only Child, a genial family drama, 60s coming of age story and political history lesson. In the small industrial town of Latina, founded by the fascists in the 30s and remaining sympathetic to Mussolini’s rule, two brothers compete politically and romantically. Manrico (Riccardo Scamarcio) is the older Benassi brother, a fiery leftist with a roving eye. Younger brother Assio (Elio Germano) tries the seminary and fascism before wising up. Between the two boys is the beautiful Francesca (Diane Fleri), distracting them both from the important political matters at hand.
When it comes, the twist is like a kidney punch, sucking all the air out of you. You’ve grown to like all these characters with their passionate, expressive, emotional Italian-ness and by the end you find you really care – something that the clever-clever Seven Pounds was never likely to achieve.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 21 January, 2009.
I want to apologise to regular readers for the poor quality of the prose in this week’s review. I knew it was pretty crappy when I submitted it but the combination of only one day in Wellington before deadline meant I had to write it and send it before returning to work on Tuesday. It could definitely have used an extra polish.