’Tis the season to reboot tired franchises and this week we get an explosive new look at James Cameron’s beloved Terminator. Set only nine years in the future (when open-air battlefield heart transplants will be de rigeur during la guerre), the Judgement Day of T2 has destroyed most of the West Coast of the USA and only a hardy band of ill-equipped rebels are keeping the monstrous Skynet at bay.
John Connor, prophesied future saviour of the human race, is a only a soldier in the rebel army but his regular radio broadcasts bring hope to the scattered, ragtag freedom-fighters. In a battle to rescue some human prisoners his entire squad is killed – but he does manage to release the mysterious Marcus Wright (Aussie boofhead Sam Worthington) who may hold the key to the defeat of the machines.
Too late to be more than 50% useful to anyone, here’s my World Cinema Showcase preview:
As summer gives way to autumn, and Daylight Saving Time gently releases its grip on our priorities, the first significant film festival of the year returns to take up residence at the Paramount. The World Cinema Showcase is two very tidy weeks of great filmgoing, almost as if the grand, winter, Festival has been distilled down to a manageable essence.
Within, 33 features (and one omnibus collection of shorts) compete for your attention and, luckily, the long Easter weekend allows you take full advantage. A few of the titles were made available to critics as previews, but many more are on my list of films I simply must see on the big screen and, depending on your tastes and interests, nothing is un-recommendable.
And, at risk of sounding like a total film-wanker I’m going to allocate what strengths The Spiderwick Chronicles has to the presence of the great John Sayles as co-writer. Sayles’ independent work includes classics like The Brother From Another Planet and Passion Fish but makes a living doing (mostly uncredited) punch-up jobs on big budget screenplays. I was growing increasingly frustrated with the plodding story-telling, and the over-reliance on the well-designed digi-creatures, before a great moment at the climax restored my faith that a proper screenwriter was on board after all.
Three children have to leave New York when their parents split up and live in the big, old, abandoned house in the country that their crazy Aunt lived in. Freddie Highmore, so ubiquitous in these sorts of films that he even does double-duty in this one, plays bad-boy Jared who discovers an old book in the attic, reads the note warning him not to open it, ignores it, and unleashes a world of goblins, fairies and ogres that are invisible to normal people. Nothing new to report there, then, but every generation seems to need a new version just for them.
I’ve been a John Pilger-sceptic for a while, not helped by his bombastic and unpleasant behaviour to local interviewers, but his first independent documentary for cinema, The War on Democracy, eventually won me over. It makes an excellent companion to Helen Smyth’s Cuba-doc ¿La Verdad? as it provides the kind of encyclopaedic background to the United States’ nefarious engagement with Latin America that she could only hint at. Starting in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, Pilger uses the failed coup in 2002 as a springboard to show how, for more than 50 years, the US has installed or deposed governments across the continent in order to further its own political and financial aims. It’s not great cinema – that’s not Pilger’s bag – but it is essential viewing.
Horton Hears a Who! may well feature the most profound moment in cinema this year. As the tiny citizens of Who-ville (a bustling and happy community living on a tiny speck, itself sitting on a dandelion being blown around by fate) realise that in order to be saved they first must be heard, they bang drums, blow trumpets and chant “We are here!” Like the forgotten poor in Pilger’s Caracas barrio or the displaced in Darfur, the power to proclaim our existence in the face of ignorant or malevolent authority isn’t just a right, it’s an obligation, and I’m certain that the good Dr. Seuss wouldn’t have missed the connection.
Big-hearted elephant Horton (Jim Carrey) rescues the speck when his enormous ears pick up the tiny voice of the Who-ville Mayor (Steve Carell) and he realises that he has a mission. In the face of community standards ruthlessly enforced by Carol Burnett’s Kangaroo, Horton is hounded out of the jungle but he never gives up. So, not only does Horton not suck like all recent Seuss adaptations, it bristles with energy, humour and panache. Choice!
Like the forthcoming Dylan portrait I’m Not There, Across the Universe feels like the Baby Boomers’ last attempt to claim the 60s as, you know, important, meaningful, unique. The music of The Beatles tells the story of star-crossed lovers Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) and Jude (Jim Sturgess) as they try and keep a relationship alive across that tumultuous decade. I emotionally disengaged the moment I realised that Sturgess sounded like Robbie Williams instead of John Lennon but was never less than entertained. A trip, man.
How She Move is a Canadian version of films like Step Up 2 The Streets, Stomp The Yard and countless others. Featuring all the usual elements of the genre: underground urban dance crews; a kid has to get out of the ghetto via a scholarship; she needs the prize money; parents just don’t understand, etc. It’s as if the producers couldn’t decide which banal clichés to leave out and gave up, stuffing the finished film to breaking point. I’ve grown to really dislike the dancing in these films, too.
Finally, a late word on behalf of Rambo (which missed the cut during the last few weeks). By making his villains Burmese human-rights violators and his victims innocent aid workers, director Sylvester Stallone stacks the deck effectively and, despite looking completely bizarre, he infuses his taciturn killing-machine with the occasional moist-eyed moment of humanity amid the flying limbs. A respectable end to what had become a cartoon franchise.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 16 April, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: Semi-Pro was at a sparsely attended public matinée at Readings. The Spiderwick Chronicles was at the Empire in Island Bay and the review was in no way influenced by the lovely free coffee they made me just as the trailers were playing. The War on Democracy was a DVD screener provided by Hopscotch (via GT) and the film is currently only playing at the Lighthouse in Petone. Horton Hears a Who! was also screened at the Empire where I was the only unattended adult present. Across the Universe was screened at the Paramount’sWorld Cinema Showcase. How She Move was an exceedingly sparsely attended matinée at Readings and Rambo was another Readings week day matinée, a couple of weeks ago.
It’s been a tough old week to be a cinephile. Firstly, poet of the dark interior of human existence Ingmar Bergman finally gives up the ghost, then I get to watch a dismal romantic comedy starring Mandy Moore. Next, Michelangelo Antonioni, cinematic architect of the spaces between people, himself passes over and I get to watch another dismal romantic comedy starring Mandy Moore. If it hadn’t been for The Last Picture Show at the Festival it might have been a depressing week indeed.
The Mandy Moore rom-com double-feature features Because I Said So and License To Wed, both directed by TV hacks who, when furnished with decent scripts, can turn out creditable work (Michael Lehmann made Heathers and The Truth About Cats and Dogs) but that isn’t the case here.
In Because I Said So Mandy Moore plays a caterer and the youngest daughter of pushy single mom Diane Keaton. She’s the only daughter not yet married and, of course, the whole family frets about her finding the right man before it’s too late (though she’s only about 22). Secretly Keaton places an ad at an Internet dating site hoping to screen candidates on Moore’s behalf; meanwhile Moore actually falls for a musician with a tattoo and comedy misunderstandings obviously ensue.
I found it impossible to dredge up any enthusiasm for this film but the handful of middle-aged women I shared the screening with laughed like drains so you might want to take their opinion over mine if you are so inclined.
In License To Wed Moore plays a florist who has just got engaged to John Krasinsky (Tim from the American version of The Office). The church wedding she has always dreamed of comes with strings attached — a compulsory marriage preparation course taken by Reverend Frank played by Robin Williams. There are two kinds of Robin Williams film nowadays: the serious kind and the crap kind and this is the latter. Krasinsky is quite watchable though and I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more of him over the next wee while — he’s like a young Tom Hanks with a pair of comedy ears on.
Returning from the World Cinema Showcase earlier this year is the splendid Apartheid-era political thriller Catch a Fire starring Tim Robbins and (one of my favourite actors) Derek Luke from Antwone Fisher. The film is set in the North Eastern Coal Fields of South Africa in 1980 where all communities live in the shadow of the huge Secunda Oil Refinery. Luke plays apolitical refinery worker Patrick Chamusso who becomes politicised after being accused and tortured over a terrorist attack at the refinery.
He travels to Mozambique to join the ANC and plot the destruction of the refinery, and the overthrow of the hated apartheid system. What he doesn’t realise is that the moral corruption of apartheid reflects itself in real world corruption everywhere and that his movements have been watched by policeman Nic Vos (Robbins).
Catch a Fire is a testament to the many sacrifices of those years disguised as a fast-moving thriller and it works on both levels. Written by Shawn Slovo, herself the daughter of white ANC freedom fighters, the film also takes a sensitive approach (in the spirit of Truth and Reconciliation) to the white side of the story, showing the spiritual damage done to them by apartheid. You won’t find many more satisfying (or more beautifully photographed) films this year.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday, 8 August, 2007.