Bernie Richard Linklater’s new movie marks the second time he’s worked with Jack Black. (The first was the director’s rambunctious comedy School of Rock, nine years ago). The new film, Bernie, is a fictional retelling, with documentary inserts, of the events detailed in a 1998 Texas Monthly article called “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas.” (Linklater wrote the film’s script with the article’s author, Skip Hollandsworth.) In 1985, Bernie Tiede, a mildly effeminate mortician (he preferred “funeral director”), moved to the sleepy, oil-rich town of Carthage, quickly won the townspeople’s hearts, and, some time in the early to mid-’90s, befriended a widow, Marjorie Nugent. No one really liked her—everyone thought she was a mean little old lady—and so they were slightly taken aback when Bernie became her constant companion all of a sudden. People weren’t too concerned, though, when she disappeared—it got to the point where no one had laid eyes on her for nine months—and, amazingly, they weren’t even shocked when Bernie later confessed to having fatally shot her in the back four times with a low-powered rifle intended to be used for getting rid of armadillos. (He stuffed Marjorie’s corpse in a deep-freeze because he sweetly believed everyone deserves a proper burial. Funnily, at least one interviewee remains convinced of Bernie’s innocence.) Linklater’s film is a documentary examination of these events woven through with a fiction-film retelling of same. Humorous anecdotes about Bernie and Marjorie from Carthage residents who knew the couple are mixed with performances by actors, with Black in the lead. (Some of the interviewees, the credits reveal, were stand-in actors; it gets kinda difficult at times to tell who’s real and who’s just pretending to be “real.”) The townspeople’s anecdotes are, maybe bizarrely given Black’s comedy pedigree, much more entertaining than the rest of the film, mostly for their bitchiness and the great Southern turns of phrase they keep using. Black is pretty great as Bernie, though in the parts where he has to sing he relies a little too heavily on the shtick he perfected back in his “Tenacious D” days. (Bernie reportedly had a great voice—“You got to admit nobody could sing ‘Amazing Grace’ like Bernie could,” someone said in Hollandsworth’s original article—and Black overdoes it to the point where you’re almost momentarily taken out of the story.) Shirley MacLaine, who plays Marjorie, and Matthew McConaughey, who plays the town’s D.A., the wonderfully named Danny Buck, don’t really do much with their roles, not that they could: the director chose—to the film’s detriment—to not embellish or dramatise the story. What he’s delivered, then, is an uneasy hybrid of documentary and black-comedy fiction. Linklater, an Austin native, really knows and has great affection for the people involved at every level of the story, but this is an uneven trifle of a thing; when it comes down to it, Bernie’s story is so deeply unexciting, so ‘unsexy’ in a tabloid sense, and so lacking in malice or violence, that it’s ultimately not even worth recounting. 1.5/5 HL
The Bourne Legacy Don’t bother. Unless you’re liable to find it fascinating to watch a franchise which alchemised style into substance crumble into substance-free style in the hands of a director who clearly doesn’t understand his own strengths. In which case do bother, but be aware you’re attending a car crash. Tony Gilroy co-wrote all three of the previous Bourne films. He also wrote and directed Michael Clayton, for which he deserves, and got, praise, and Duplicity, for which he deserves, and got, a slap on the wrist. In co-writing and directing this attempt at freeing the Bourne action franchise from its dependence on Matt Damon, he completes a disastrous three film trajectory: from restrained competence to self-defeating albeit still mildly enjoyable cleverness, to the least thrilling thriller imaginable. You don’t realise just how good the Damon Bourne films were until you see someone manage to reproduce their look and basic shape without capturing any of their excitement. The first scene shows us a man hanging suspended under water, an obvious enough move – “Look! We meet our Jason Bourne replacement doing exactly what Jason Bourne was doing in the first and last scenes of his trilogy!“ - but not necessarily a bad one. Except Gilroy supplies us with no reason for the scene to exist: it’s there purely to claim Bourne status. This sort of thing is going to happen all through the film. The figure stirs, kicks to the surface, emerges. It’s Jeremy Renner. He personifies the curious should-work-but-doesn’t quality of the film, because on paper he’s just about the perfect guy to replace Damon, a rugged everyman actor with some substance to him and the physique to be a plausible action hero. But here he’s simply bland. He makes you see how much charisma Damon brings to what appears to be a very understated performance. Similarly with the action sequences. The stories of the Damon films are so simple they’re only just there; the films’ power to entertain is a function of well conceived moment-by-moment forwards-driving action, built up out of good choreography, good acting, good camera work, good editing, an expertly composed score… the list of elements that work just right is a long one, and every item on it matters. The governing idea is that Bourne, frequently a lousy strategist, is a tactical genius: put him in danger and he’ll think faster than the people trying to catch him, and also faster than the audience, and yet his decisions will be comprehensible, and when we see where they’re leading, we’ll go “Ah-ha! Of course!” This is hard to pull off. Watch Gilroy’s film try, and you’ll realise just how hard. Again and again, we can see where Renner is going long before he gets there, and we’re given no particular reason to care whether or not he makes it. Jason Bourne was a man trying to assume moral responsibility for his past; the films didn’t make a huge deal of this, but it was always clear that we were meant to compare him with his government official would-be nemeses, avatars of the out-of-control post-9/11 American security apparatus. Watch Green Zone, which does make a huge deal of America’s dubious response to 9/11, and you’ll see how badly Bourne Supremacy and Bourne Ultimatum director Paul Greengrass needs someone like Gilroy to temper his preacher tendencies. But The Bourne Legacy demonstrates how much more badly Gilroy needs someone like Greengrass. Here the conspiratorial security world is a vast, stultifying presence, full of secrets which will turn out to be trivial once we’ve laboured our way through reams of cryptic exposition, and one secret which has very non-trivial implications, none of which Gilroy seems alert to. Without giving the plot away – though it would save you so much time if I did – Gilroy decides to center his tale on the issue of just how men like Jason Bourne could function at such a seemingly superhuman level. Most action thrillers have the sense to leave this awkward question strictly alone; in foregrounding it, Gilroy does not reduce the absurdity of all those professionally aimed bullets that somehow never quite hit our hero, but he does manage to burden himself with a boring, no-stakes plotline. He also takes the series a long way down the road towards science fiction dystopia, and with no apparent awareness of having done so. There was no fundamental reason why this franchise rejig should not have resulted in another sleek, high octane pop culture classic – except for the most fundamental one of all, which is that good action movies are not easy to make. Someone please tell Tony Gilroy, before he botches another one. 2.5/5 DL
Brave If you’re a parent looking for a yes/no answer to the question, “Should I take my kids to this?”, it’s a yes. Energetic, looks great, story works okay; attempt at getting feminism and mainstream American conservatism to hold hands and pretend to be friends laughably inadequate, but that’s par for the kids movie course. If you’re a Pixar watcher looking for a yes/no answer to the question, “Was Cars 2 just a blip?”, things get a bit more complicated. This is certainly a much better film than Cars 2, the one that broke Pixar’s 15 year “no bad movies” streak. It has decent voice acting – one of the things we used to take for granted with Pixar, before Larry the Cable Guy’s awful turn as Mater in the Cars films – and it’s fun. And gorgeous to look at of course; that, we can still take for granted. On the other hand, this has been trumpeted as the first Pixar film with a girl hero. You have to ask yourself – with 12 features about boys being boys behind them and not one that centers itself on a female point of view, what exactly does “telling a girl’s story” mean to Pixar? Apparently, it means 1) make her a princess, that always worked for Disney, and incidentally allows us to 2) put her in a society with an incredibly confining notion of female behaviour, so she can be rebellious and feisty just by virtue of not wanting to be married off at 15, and then let’s 3) make her express her rebellion by shooting arrows at things, so we can have action scenes. In other words, this is a girl who superficially behaves like Pixar’s idea of a boy, while acting out the tamest possible version of a female empowerment story: if she can manage to achieve less freedom than the audience’s great great grandmothers had, we’ll call that a happy ending. But any little girls out there hoping for a positive role model can take some comfort: she has amazing hair. Meanwhile, the film is mostly bereft of the originality that made Up and Wall-E so memorable, and it can’t own its mainstream American values the way the Toy Story films can, because it’s busy trying to make the princess thing work. Pixar’s grand magus, John Lasseter, was the man who announced, shortly after Disney brought him in to save their animated films from irrelevance, that Disney was getting out of the princess game – but this lively, forgettable thing is a Disney princess film with a make-over. 3.5/5 DL
The Campaign Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis star as North Carolina politicians in this unambitious, low-brow comedy from director Jay Roach (the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents/Fockers franchises). Ferrell plays Camden Brady, the all-American, unexpectedly incumbent representative for the 14th congressional district. Galifianakis—reprising his lisp-hindered ‘brother Seth’ character—plays Marty Huggins, the parochial, dim-witted challenger. Dan Ackroyd and John Lithgow look incredibly bored in cameos as the ‘Motch’ brothers, the powerful corporate heads who, in order to oust the politically ‘difficult’ Brady, back Huggins as the rival candidate. (They’re plainly stand-ins for the Koch brothers, who seem to have taken the joke seriously; the gag is funnier nearer the start, when the name is, I think, mispronounced “Marx”). Dylan McDermott and Jason Sudekis round out the core cast as political-marksmen/aides. McDermott aside, assembling a trio with such innate comedic talent—Galifianakis’ comedy pedigree is renowned; Sudekis’ Biden and Ferrell’s George W. Bush characters have been reprised season after season on SNL—should at least result in something vaguely enjoyable. Alas, even if you’re a fan of the two leads, The Campaign is a chore, largely because of its uninspired, bottom-of-the-barrel script (by TV writers Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell). A recurring gag with an Asian-American maid generates the film’s only laugh-out-loud moments, and even then only barely. Dinner-table scenes, even though they look like they were fun to shoot, are continual fodder for lame jokes: Brady’s wife announces she’s about to use some ‘TV-mature’ language, and advises the kids to put their iPod earbuds in; the joke—which can be seen a mile away and is reprised to little effect in the third act—is that the kids are listening to Three 6 Mafia. The Campaign is fairly inconsistent in the way it approaches its subject: given the film’s epigram (a Ross Perot quote, “Politics has no rules,” used anachronistically), at one time in the pre-production brainstorming process the filmmakers may have held genuine ambitions of creating a political satire; in the finished product, the ‘funny’ derives almost entirely from fart- and sex-jokes. A baby getting punched in the face occasions a neat bit of super-slow-mo CGI, though, if that’s your sort of thing. 1.5/5 HL
Cheerful Weather For The Wedding Remarkably inert period piece, clearly aimed at Downton Abbey fans – the manipulative mother of the 1930s English country estate where what I shall very loosely term the action takes place is played by Downton‘s Elizabeth McGovern, and there are broad gestures at Amusing English Character Types on display wherever you look. I am of the Downton-watching tribe, I confess it freely (despite season 2). But the humour here is forced, the drama lacks drama, and the central question – will bride-to-very-shortly-be Dolly change her mind and run off with the Man She Has A Past With – could be settled far more satisfyingly by flipping a coin. 2/5 DL
The Dark Knight Rises There will be only one spoiler in this review, and it will not be for Christopher Nolan’s new Batman movie; if you treasure your continued ignorance regarding the final beats of a 26 year old comic, stop reading this now. At the end of The Dark Knight Falls, the final volume of Frank Miller’s 1986 Dark Knight graphic novel series, the sacred text of the post-Adam West we’re-going-to-take-batarangs-seriously-now Batman revival, we see Batman die. (In single combat with Superman, now the debased toady of a degenerate American government; Miller has never been one for soft pastels). But it turns out the hero has faked his death, in order to take himself off the world’s radar and work against the powers that be from behind the scenes. This is the hidden message in the title of Nolan’s final Batman movie: by flipping falls into rises, he’s hinting that this time, we won’t get fake death and then victory. We’ll get fake victory and then death. It’s a nice little mind game – bluff, or double bluff? – but the more interesting question, obviously, is “Do we care?” Having been deeply underwhelmed by every part of Nolan’s Dark Knight that wasn’t Heath Ledger, I’m surprised to find myself saying this, but I did care. Nolan, as ever, approaches his story with deathly seriousness, and mixes realism and fantasy to a recipe quite unlike those of other superhero movies. He turns the usual credibility problem of long-running action franchises to good account by making Christian Bale’s near-middle-age an explicit roadblock – this, visibly, is an older, frailer Batman, trying to push his body to do things it used to do easily – and at the same time asks us to swallow scientific and medical idiocies and villains whose ultimate motivation makes sense only in kindergarten terms. Every significant turn of the plot is fully predictable, and the film progresses with an unhurried lack of pace which translates to a running time of over two and a half hours. All of which a disenchanted reviewer could present as reasons to stay away, but for my money Nolan manages to convert them into assets: this is an honest, well crafted genre piece, which uses its massive length not to cram in a random jumble of this-worked-last-time ingredients, but to back its hero into a terrible corner, and then show him attempting to get out. There is no performance to equal Ledger’s Joker, which is to say there’s no unimpressed personification of chaos making the film’s self-serious choreography look pompous, but Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and the usual regulars all do good, satisfying work. Of this year’s superhero movie crop (I still can’t believe we live in a world where this is a sentence I have to write), I admired Joss Whedon’s Avengers for doing everything the studio execs insist a franchise movie has to do, and yet still (somehow) being great fun. The Amazing Spiderman is useful as an instance of the typical franchise sins, and useful for nothing else whatsoever. Nolan doesn’t have Whedon’s infectious love for this material, but give him credit for this: he knows his craft, and he knows that stories need endings. In today’s Hollywood that’s all too rare. 4/5 DL
Dredd Such bad luck about The Raid. Dredd screenwriter Alex Garland – he of the knotty high concept, highly literate novels, and one reason to take this cult action flick somewhat seriously even if you’re not eligible for its cult – has gone on record saying that yes, sure, it’s not ideal having two megaviolent cult action flicks in one year with essentially the same plot, especially if yours happens to be the second one out of the gate… but really, they’re such different films, and he doesn’t see a problem. Fries and a coke with your wishful thinking, Mr Garland? The Raid didn’t just get to market first with its storm-this-highrise-slum, kill-crimelord-on-top-floor storyline, it also left audiences’ jaws on the floor (together with assorted body parts from most of its cast) to a degree Dredd doesn’t have a prayer of matching. And then there’s The Dark Knight Rises, or rather, Christian Bale’s gruff voiced, black clad, blunt chinned near-antihero, who was back on the screen only a month before Dredd and whose resemblance to its eponymous hero became painfully obvious the moment Karl Urban growled his first line. But take away these seen-it-before-very-recently impediments, and Dredd would still be a niche film: a well conceived, competently executed translation of John Wagner’s comics to the screen, and thus balm to the wounded souls of Wagner’s many fans, still smarting from the 1995 Stallone version… but also a brutally violent story set in a stock post-apocalyptic urban nowhere, centered on a character who arrives on the screen fully formed, has no emotions, learns nothing, and kills people for their own good. Yay. 3/5 DL
The Expendables 2 You know why this is cool? Because Arnold Schwarzenegger is out of politics and available for extended cameo duty. When lame satire on lame 1980s action movies has Arnold in it, it becomes instantly less lame. This is axiomatic, by which I mean it’s a completely indefensible position which I am going to assert anyway. The first of these get-togethers for superannuated muscle men was quite remarkably soggy. Basically, if you’d spent the previous 20 years down in the mouth because you weren’t getting to see Stallone pretending to suffer hideous pain so he could inflict hideous pain on other people, your wait was over. There’s every bit as much self-puffery from the former Rambo this time round, and pretty much the same amount of violence – that would be LOTS – but the incidental pleasures are easier to locate. The film is less a hamhanded recreation of the unlamented tropes of the genre than its predecessor, and more a self-aware lampooning of them. Do not mistake this for a ringing endorsement, but I went in with very low expectations, and I came out smiling. 3.5/5 DL
Hit And Run I could be sniffy about the apparent inspiration for this idiots-on-the-run-chased-by-idiots car chase action comedy. I mean, if you’re going to let 1970s American film nostalgia be your guiding star, your choices are so broad! You could try to live up to The Godfather. Taxi Driver. Or you have all of early Spielberg. Which includes Duel, if you really need to make a film about cars and the open road. But no. Co-directors David Palmer and Dax “I also wrote and co-starred, but don’t be too impressed just yet” Shepard appear to be shooting for Watch Out, We’re Mad! (A film I am embarrassed to admit I have, yes, watched). In any case, let’s pass over the question of what film this is trying to be, because the main thing is that it’s staggeringly inept. The which-ethnicity-furnishes-the-worst-rapists humour, the “these people are old and fat so their nudity is intrinsically hilarious” sequences (do note the plural), the “these two men with nothing else in common are both gay, so they will obviously want to hook up” subplot… I mention these things not because they stand out from the film’s general-background-radiation awfulness, but because they’re handy pointers. The thing they point to is a sophistication deficit which would embarrass a Cromagnon. Oh, the plot? Sheperd’s character has to get his girlfriend from A to B by road, while people try to catch them. Watch that rubber burn! And if you can enjoy watching rubber burn, you may have a good time during the chase sequences, because that tends to be when the dialogue dies down. Be advised, though, that the chases typically consist of cars driving round and round in circles until one of them crashes. I stayed to the end of this film not because I expected it to improve, but because it was technically possible that it might. It didn’t. I would like to humbly suggest that the film-going public ought to club together at this point and buy me a drink. 1/5 DL
Hope Springs Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carrell – of course hope springs. How could it not? Sorry. This is one of those films that mistakes timidity for restraint. Granted, there are pleasures to be had in watching Streep and Jones play a married couple trying (very reluctantly, in his case) to regain the spark, under the tutelage of Carrell’s relationship counselor. And granted, there are so few mainstream films about older people that even the mediocre ones could be said to serve a demographic need. But enough with the granting things: I almost fell asleep watching this. Vanessa Taylor’s script takes the perfectly reasonable proposition that the smallest of communication problems can look huge from the inside, and uses it as an excuse for presenting us with two people who have very little to learn, and are going to spend a very long time learning it. (Taylor’s not-exactly-preparing-herself-for-this-challenge credits include Alias and Game of Thrones, and it may be worth mentioning that she’s decades younger than her characters here). Streep and Jones make their holding pattern marriage look real, but beyond a certain point they can’t make it look interesting; wasting their talents like this should be a criminal offence. Carrell is given so little to do, and there’s so little else to focus on, that I spent a lot of the film wondering whether his role represents a Robin Williams-style sideways step into a Disney-level nice guy persona. Director David Frankel worked with Streep on The Devil Wears Prada, so clearly he’s not afraid of films with a little bite. But the more relevant detail here is that he also helmed Marley and Me. If you find that a recommendation, you and I do not have a shared understanding of the words “saccharine”, “sentimental”, or “boring”, and you should probably ignore my view that this film merits all three. 3/5 DL
Hotel Transylvania We live in a golden age for animated children’s film. This year alone I’ve seen From Up On Poppy Hill, A Monster In Paris, and Le Tableau, as well as lesser but still gorgeous offerings like Brave, Wolf Children, and Pirates. (Plus there was Hugo, which is hard to classify as either animated or non-animated, but which is still, all these months later, on my top ten list for the year). Alas, we also live in the age of Adam Sandler. I can’t really blame him for everything that’s tedious, mediocre, or actively unpleasant about this wretched it’s-going-to-make-money school holiday honey trap… but what the hell, I think I will. As well as playing Count Dracula – a vegan vampire who never touches human blood – Sandler produced this film, and like everything he’s touched in the last few years, it’s built on toilet humour and smug middle-American moralism. And it resolutely refuses to take any of the more interesting opportunities its story offers it. In brief: Dracula runs hidden hotel for the undead, all of whom are kindly souls, terrified of human anti-monster prejudice. Dracula has teenage daughter. (She’s 118 years old, but whatever). Daughter chafes at Dracula’s over-protectiveness; clueless human backpacker finds his way to hotel; Dracula fears ruin if his guests find out… fill in the blanks. Remember to include fart jokes. Kids under ten will see the slapstick fun and the well animated monsters and miss most of the things that will drive parents crazy. “Young kids are too innocent to see how awful this film is, so if you’re desperate…” is a recommendation of sorts, I guess… but can I direct your school holiday attention to the full Hayao Miyazaki backlist, available on DVD and an essential part of every childhood? 3/5 DL
How Far Is Heaven Sober, restrained New Zealand documentary which follows the inhabitants of a tiny Whanganui valley township over the course of one year, paying particular attention to the interactions of the local kids with three resident nuns of the Sisters of Compassion. Directors Miriam Smith and Christopher Pryor make very few overt moves to shape our response to this community, for the most part simply presenting their footage without comment. But they have sure instincts for the telling detail, and the film leaves an indelible sense of a brutally impoverished social reality – and of the nuns’ humble desire to be of use to people they know very well they don’t fully understand. Full review here. 4/5 DL
Hysteria In the Victorian era, “hysteria” was a medical condition with wide-ranging symptoms and causes. It affected only women, and one ‘cure’ for it was a device invented in the late 19th century by Dr. Mortimer Granville: the vibrator. (It was also known as “Granville’s hammer,” apparently.) The bulk of Tanya Wexler’s film is a predictable, dry romantic comedy steeped in period-piece design and lush costumes, but shot without much care for actually showcasing those sets or costumes. A sour-looking Rupert Everett plays the doctor, whose story takes up far too little of the film’s 90-odd minutes. The film is annoyingly prim, and far too bashful about its central subject—the female orgasm—to be interesting or insightful, despite attempts to enlighten us as to women’s liberation in Victorian England. Hugh Dancy, Jonathan Pryce, and Felicity Jones star alongside with Maggie Gyllenhaal—who, expertly putting on a British accent, outshines them all. (She is, in fact, the only thing that makes the film worth seeing.) 2/5 HL
Italian Film Festival The 17th annual Italian Film Festival opened in Auckland recently with a screening of Welcome to the South (Benvenuti al Sud), a remake of the 2008 French comedy Welcome to the Sticks. The festival, which consists of 20 films from 2010 and 2011, continues until October 14th. Robert De Niro is the only high-profile name in any of the films on offer; he has a headline role in the third entry in the Manual of Love franchise, Ages of Love. Toni Servillo, who will be familiar to arthouse-goers from his work with the director Paolo Sorrentino, appears in the political thriller The Jewel. I’ve seen only one of the titles on offer, a road movie called Basilicata Coast to Coast, but cannot even slightly recommend it; I was shocked to learn it wasn’t made for TV, given its low production values and episodic, hokey script. Usually when a regional-cultural festival like this rolls around—the French, German, Spanish, and Mexican ones of recent years come to mind—I’m able to pick out a few titles I’d been anticipating from the global festival circuit; that is sadly not the case with the line-up at hand. Aside from the sole repertory screening, Cinema Paradiso, none of this year’s selections were familiar to me.
Festivals like this are usually low-budget affairs, so it’s odd that the organisers would favour quantity—20 films in a two-and-a-half-week period is a lot, especially when they’re playing a single venue—over quality. One of the major supporters of the New Zealand festival is the distributor Palace Films; a glance at the schedule of the touring Australian cultural festival they organise, which even incorporates advance screenings of Woody Allen’s new Rome-set comedy, makes ours seem paltry in comparison. The local festival presents, I think, a prime opportunity to showcase a film such as Matteo Garrone’s Reality to those who missed its direct-from-Cannes NZFF screenings. I’m not suggesting that a limited-budget affair like this screens, for example, something on the order of Marco Bellochio’s Bella Adormentata—but surely there are only so many rom-coms and light farces audiences can handle? HL
Visit the festival’s website for more information on its 2012 programme, which tours Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, Nelson, Hawke’s Bay, Tauranga, and Hamilton in October and November.
Jo Nesbo’s Jackpot The Scandinavian noir craze has reached the stage where author names make it into the title. Next up: the stage where the author names no longer need to be in the title (when did you last see a film called Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, or JK Rowling’s Harry Potter?) or alternatively the one where we’ve all stopped being quite so keen on the crisp contrasts blood provides with snow. I’ll admit that I do want to see David Fincher make a second Dragon Tattoo movie, but that aside, I could stand to see the back of this trend. In the current instance, we are not looking at a novel adaptation: Nesbo apparently decided it would be fun to do a Tarantino-style dialogue-heavy caper film, and wrote this directly for the screen. A bunch of Norwegian low-lives go shares in a lotto ticket and have the misfortune to see it win. That this is indeed a misfortune becomes clear when some of their number decide to enlarge their shares of the winnings by reducing the size of the group. But – so often the problem in these cases – what to do with the bodies? The plot, which we mostly see through possibly unreliable flashbacks, twists and turns nicely. But the comic potential of corpse dismemberment has to my mind been fully explored elsewhere, and Nesbo’s theory that spending a very long time on it and spraying blood everywhere constitutes a fresh new approach does not stand up to testing any better than her characters stand up to repeated blows to the head. The scene where they feed a body through an automated plastic Christmas tree maker and the tree emerges perfectly formed, but a dull pink, does have the authentic feel of Nordic humour. 3/5 DL
The Last Dogs of Winter Every so often a film comes along which causes me to turn to my children and say, “You know how lucky you are to be alive now? You know how rare it is, over the lifetime of our species, for ordinary people to get to see things like this?” That big screen that brings us Batman and James Bond and Jane Austen adaptations (all good things, don’t get me wrong) can also be a window in the air, opening on realities that used to be available only to people who physically went out and looked for them. Documentary film is an astonishing privilege, and we mostly take it for granted. Now as it happens, the latest film from Kiwi director Costa Botes is about another thing my children are lucky to be alive to see, in this case not because it was unavailable to past generations, but because it’s quite likely it won’t be there for future ones. Botes travels to a little town in the Canadian far north, where a man of a type Kiwis will recognise readily (think Barry Crump) is single-handedly trying to keep a species alive. The species is the Qimmiq, the Inuit dog. Bred to survive above the Arctic circle, these dogs were subjected to a massive cull by the Canadian government, on the basis that if Inuits had nothing to pull their sleds, they would have to give up their nomadic lifestyle and become civilised. There are now only a few hundred of them left. An individualist loner versus a legacy of “destroy the village in order to save it” officialdom: it’s very easy to pick sides in this film, but Botes is not out to bang the drums and sell you a message. This is an intimate engagement with an unusual way of life, exploratory, investigative, opening up a mental landscape and also making the most of a glorious physical one: the cinematography is of a very high order. If you’re interested in the question of how good films can be made on a low budget – and it’s a key question for the New Zealand industry – here’s one answer. If you’re just interested in seeing dogs play with polar bears and getting to know a capital-C Character, this will enlarge your world and leave you smiling. It opens in Auckland today, and will be moving round the rest of the country by stages. Watch out for it. 4.5/5 DL
Looper The writer-director Rian Johnson made his feature film-making début in 2005 with Brick, a murder-mystery set in a high school. The film, an homage to the hardboiled-detective fiction of Dashiell Hammett, provided Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who starred as its gumshoe protagonist, the opportunity to break free from the typecast roles he was being offered after the sitcom that made him a star, 3rd Rock From the Sun, had ended. Brick put director and actor on the map; Levitt has gone on to become a bone fide Hollywood star, with roles in (500) Days of Summer, Inception, 50/50, and The Dark Knight Rises, to name a few of his most prominent appearances. (This summer, he pops up in the bike-messenger actioner Premium Rush, and in Steven Spielberg’s much-hyped Lincoln.)
Johnson followed Brick three years later with what might be best described as its tonal opposite: an attempt at a colourful, quirky Wes Anderson-style adventure-fantasy called The Brothers Bloom. That highly anticipated film, though intermittently enjoyable and certainly immaculately shot, was something of a failure; its major issues stemmed from miscasting and an overreaching scope. It’s safe to say, given the precise control over material and craft on display in his new movie, that the uneven madcap comedy of Bloom was a misstep in Johnson’s career that we can easily overlook.
Looper begins in the year 2044. Time-travel has not yet been invented, but in thirty years’ time, it will have been. It will also have been immediately outlawed. Being illegal, it’s used, of course, only by organised-crime syndicates. Johnson reunites with Gordon-Levitt, whom he casts as one half of the dual-role protagonist, Joe. He’s a “looper,” a specialised assassin charged with executing whomever the mob sends back in time, without letting him get away. The catch is that, eventually, every looper is sent his future self as a target—this is called “closing a loop.” (This is why I called Joe a “dual-role protagonist”: his escaped older half is played by Bruce Willis.) In 2074, an underworld kingpin, ‘the Rainmaker,’ is hell-bent on closing all the loops—so Joe goes back to the future to try and stop him.
The film is one part near-future action movie (with a fun cameo from Paul Dano, as a nervy colleague of Joe’s); one part globe-trotting crime-thriller (with a really fun cameo from Jeff Daniels), and one part wide-eyed, Kansas-set Spielbergian drama (with a stand-out supporting performance from Emily Blunt). Visual and story elements from a number of sci-fi movies are winked-at and flat-out incorporated into the story—part of the fun is in noticing them all. The film’s superb cinematography comes courtesy of Steve Yedlin; he’s been Johnson’s behind-the-camera collaborator since his film-school days. After Inception, very little in the way of visual-effects and cinematography can justifiably be labelled “ground-breaking,” but suffice it to say that a number of sequences in Looper—particularly a few early fight scenes—feature jaw-dropping camerawork.
The film’s score, perplexingly unobtrusive and almost entirely unmelodic, is, I think, its one big let-down. Written by Nathan Johnson, the director’s brother, it largely comprises percussive, mechanical field-recordings assembled in a computerised ‘virtual orchestra.’ When real instruments are used, they sound out simple, streaky orchestral bursts; the score features no motifs and no repeated themes—not even a central one. The score doesn’t flesh out the film’s soundscape, it merely sits there in the background. In short, it’s boring. Electronica scores can provide, especially to sci-fi and hi-tech stories, much-needed atmosphere; see, as recent examples, Daft Punk’s music for TRON: Legacy, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ brilliantly sinewy soundtrack for The Social Network. Nathan’s previous work as composer, most prominently on his brother’s first two films, was fantastically idiosyncratic, akin to Michael Andrews’ sparse, analogue pieces for Donnie Darko. On this project, Nathan was reportedly inspired by Ben Burtt, the sound designer on Star Wars—but while Burtt’s innovative work won him awards, the sometimes barely noticeable rhythm-cycles that populate the aural world of Looper are anything but noteworthy: they’re un-engaging and, in the end, wholly unmemorable.
As regards music choices, Rian seems to have a fondness for ’60s and ’70s folk-rock. Brick had a Velvet Underground song in it; Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” and Cat Stevens’ “Miles from Nowhere” were featured in The Brothers Bloom, and Looper has Warren Zevon’s “Carmelita” and Richard and Linda Thompson’s “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” make appearances in the background. (You can read about Johnson’s use of the last of those tracks in this Badass Digest piece, but beware minor plot spoilers.)
Looper is that rare thing in contemporary science-fiction cinema: Dickian but not dumbed-down. Johnson’s pet visual motifs—most notably arrows and timepieces—are, cleverly, given more of a workout than they were in his previous work; his use of cinematic space is also more adventurous—perhaps achieving here scope-wise what he aimed for on his second film. This is an intelligent, humanistic time-travel movie that, despite cribbing from a vast swathe of pre-existing material, is innovative and fresh. Among recent sci-fi fare, only Shane Carruth’s Primer and Duncan Jones’ Moon have so energetically told such smart, inventive stories. Johnson ups the ante on both technical and script levels, and deftly mixes action, inquisitive dialogue-heavy scenes, and even a bit of body-horror into a thrilling puzzle film. 4.5/5 HL
Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted Not seen. Because look, neither Helene, David nor Hugh has children under ten, and David, who does have kids who still enjoy a well made animated children’s film, is increasingly unable to get them out the door for cookie-cutter Hollywood formula fare. Maybe this isn’t cookie-cutter Hollywood formula fare. We can’t say. All we can offer you is David’s children’s response to the trailer. Which was, “Please may we mow the lawn instead?”
Magic Mike Stephen Soderbergh’s male stripper movie, starring Channing Tatum in all his manly glory. Well, most of his manly glory. Fear not, insecure straight male readers, the giant screen will confront you with no giant penises if you troop along to this. And you should, it’s the most entertaining film Soderbergh has made since Erin Brockovich. Somehow, he manages to deliver a bubbly, immensely likeable fantasy about a guy who needs to admit that he isn’t living quite the dream life he thinks he is, while at the same time commenting quite chillingly on the fast-withering prospects of working class men in Big Money’s America. Tatum is wonderful in the title role, and Matthew McConaughey, as an over-the-top strip club owner with a cold eye for the main chance, gives him a great foil. Alex Pettyfer does the best work of his career as the young friend Mike introduces to life on the stage; this is saying very little indeed, but the character is meant to be a cipher, and Pettyfer measures up to that mark nicely. 4/5 DL
Moonrise Kingdom New Penzance Island, 1965: Wes Anderson’s summer of love. On the cusp of adolescence and enamoured of one another, our protagonists Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop, portrayed by first-time actor and actress Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, elope—but only to the far side of the island. After an exchange of letters in which he gives her detailed, orienteering-like instructions on how, when, and precisely where to meet, they walk toward each other in a field—he clutching a bunch of wildflowers, her carrying a kitten in a wicker picnic-basket. As a ferocious storm approaches, a search party is assembled; this comprises Sam’s scoutmaster (Ed Norton), searching with some of his troops, and Suzy’s parents, played by the ever-wonderful Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, as well as the island’s sole police officer, played by—who else?—Bruce Willis. The soundtrack is made up chiefly of music by Benjamin Britten (his didactic 1946 opus The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra features prominently) but also makes use of a couple of Hank Williams tunes and moreover, at their makeshift seaside retreat, the film’s lovebirds dance to a 45 of Françoise Hardy’s “Le temps de l’amour.” Anderson employs other Britten pieces on the soundtrack, but the pièce de résistance at its core is Alexandre Desplat’s score. It comprises a suite, “The Heroic Weather-Conditions of the Universe,” that, in part, interpolates and reshapes, with Desplat’s idiosyncrasies, some of the motifs in Britten’s Guide—and it stands with Desplat’s compositions for The Tree of Life as some of his best work to date. The film is grounded by the heartfelt, simple love story at its centre, but this is still a wholly Andersonian world: every frame is meticulously composed, every part of the mise-en-scène painstakingly pored-over. This may just be the American master’s best film yet. Longer review here. 5/5 HL
New Zealand International Film Festival As I write this the Auckland branch of the festival is already well under way, and screenings will be going on round the country until the end of October. This is the big film event of the year; or rather it’s a collection of so many film events it’s difficult to cover with anything like the breadth or depth it deserves. Helene Wong’s preview piece is here, David Larsen’s is here, and David Larsen and Hugh Lilly staggered out from the festival with a final count of six blog posts: one, two, three, four, five, six.
On The Road There’s a famous video-clip of Jack Kerouac on The Steve Allen Show in 1959 in which the author reads from the final paragraph of his greatest and best-known novel. The footage has been used in countless documentaries and films, and when you hear him read this particular passage, backed by Allen’s improv-jazz pianism, it’s transcendent. When Sam Riley recites it at the close of Walter Salles’ new film adaptation, you can tell the actor has listened over and over to recordings and seen videos of Kerouac reading and speaking—he’s attempting to perfectly imitate Kerouac’s mélange of accents, trying to enumerate into just how many syllables Kerouac broke down Dean’s last name in that final puff of dynamism: “Dean Mo-r-i-ar-ty.” Riley’s over-reliance on imitation in this coda is the film’s most glaring miscalculation—but there are numerous pleasures elsewhere. Kerouac put the novel together in a three-week burst of writing, in April of 1951, on “a scroll of paper three inches thick made up of one single-spaced, unbroken 120-ft. long paragraph,” a friend later recalled. He apparently typed at 100 words per minute and didn’t sleep much. This narrative-via-stream-of-consciousness resulted in a haphazard assemblage, an off-the-cuff way of relating the story. Salles, who tracked a more politicised road journey in The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), hasn’t discarded this exuberant mood in his adaptation, but he has taken its characters and given them story-arcs: as in most movies, they transition and develop as the plot unfurls. Riley, a British actor who was perfectly cast as Ian Curtis in Anton Corbijn’s Joy Division biopic Control, expertly puts on an accent as the novel’s narrator and ersatz Kerouac, Sal Paradise. Garrett Hedlund (TRON: Legacy) plays Dean Moriarty, On the Road’s “hero-saint”; like Riley, Hedlund’s performance suffers occasionally: the actor has the physicality but lacks the hip sensibility needed to fully embody the character. Mary-Lou, Dean’s pleasure-seeking sixteen-year-old girlfriend, is played by Kristen Stewart, who, as she did in Greg Mottola’s Adventureland, here evinces a wry understanding of her character’s impulses and needs. The rest of the cast includes Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen (wonderfully sneering in the character of William S. Burroughs stand-in ‘Old Bull Lee’), and amusing, if brief, cameos from Steve Buscemi and Elizabeth Moss. The cut that played in the film festival, and the cut that I saw at a press screening, was 137 minutes; Salles has apparently since edited 15 minutes out of the film for Toronto and for the US market—in the case of the latter, he probably eliminated some of the sex and nudity in order to gain a lower MPAA rating. I’m inclined to think that this editing has probably produced a more satisfying resolution to the film: the aforementioned coda, in which we see Riley tape together pieces of paper to form the now-mythical scroll, feels an unnecessary addition—the film could, without any great loss, done well to have ended a scene or two earlier. The film’s greatest asset, however, above even its frequently infectious, vital performances and sex-, drugs- and jazz-fuelled story, is its cinematography: the wide open roads and luminous vistas that unfurl before this collection of free spirits—we see picture-postcard images of snow-shrouded cars speeding across unworn highways; the rough-and-tumble NYC of the late nineteen-forties, and the sickly heat of Tijuana—are a sight to behold. Longer review here.. 3/5 HL
Resident Evil: Retribution Halfway decent trailer notwithstanding, it turns out that this series is precisely where we draw the line at going to every possible film in order to tell you about them. Sorry. Was offered a viewing. Ducked.
Ruby Sparks Welcome back to the myth of Pygmalion: the male creator, the dream woman who comes to life, the fantasy made flesh. Ovid built it into our cultural bones and it’s been played with, in various combinations and permutations, ever since. I’m particularly fond of Geoff Ryman’s novel Lust, in which a repressed gay scientist finds he has the power to bring his sexual fantasies to life, and embarks on a string of hilarious, disturbing and ultimately disastrous excursions into the hidden depths of his own unconscious, involving relationships with well realised versions of Alexander the Great, Pablo Picasso, the All Blacks (orgy scene!) and a long list of others. I’d love to believe that Zoe Kazan had read Lust, or had any awareness that fantasy fiction has produced dozens of excellent books exploring the intersection of desire, repression, and creativity; that is, I’d love it if her screenplay for this wan indie romance-drama-comedy-whatever reflected any sense that these are much fished waters. As well as writing the film, she plays the title character, the dream woman of a quote-unquote brilliant young writer named Calvin, who starts writing about her in a fit of anguished loneliness and is first alarmed, then delighted, when she comes to life. I’ve written at length in the magazine about why I find Paul Dano so very wrong for the role of Calvin, and why this on its own is fatal for the film. As you’ll gather from the above, the other target of my extreme frustration in the wake of watching this was Kazan’s screenplay. There’s an interesting parallel, actually, between Dano’s Calvin and the screenplay: Calvin is a bland, boring young instance of one of Hollywood’s worst tropes, the genius who’s a genius because the film damn well tells you he’s a genius, all evidence to the contrary. He has no idea he has a dark side. The film wants to be a sweet love story with just the slightest tinge of darkness, allowing Calvin to behave badly only so he can learn better and earn – perhaps – a happy ending. It seems blissfully ignorant of the degree to which its central conceit commits it to exploring the territory of serial date rape and terminal narcissism, and it never really addresses the question of whether Ruby is a person, or just an aspect of Calvin’s own mind. The implications are as unlovely on one side of this equation as they are on the other, but in either case they’re interesting. Kazan doesn’t want to know. That’s interesting in itself, I suppose, but anyone rolling up to this in hopes of either the light-hearted date movie it thinks it is or the serious-minded psychological fantasy it flirts with being is in for a nasty surprise. 2/5 DL
The Sapphires Almost a musical – the four superb actresses who make up the eponymous 1960s Koori girl group have a way of dropping into song when life gets too intense for ordinary speech – but, crucially, not quite. Somehow Wayne Blair’s adaptation of Tony Briggs’ play stays just the right side of the film-about-musicians/musical line, meaning that instead of reaching for the suspend-your-disbelief-here hooks whenever these moments loom, you can treat them as genuinely illustrative of character. These are women for whom music is a refuge, as well as a joy. They have a lot to take refuge from; the film is set only one year after Australia finally got round to granting Aborigines the vote, and though white Australia’s hard-boiled racism doesn’t dominate the story, it’s always there, a highly toxic background radiation. So the fact that the film is mostly joyful could seem contemptibly unrealistic, a denial of what this generation of indigenous Australians lived through. It doesn’t play that way. Despite some moments of slightly forced melodrama and a number of plot threads that don’t really go anywhere, this is one of those life-celebrating films you can feel good about taking your kids and your elderly relatives to. 4/5 DL
Savages Oliver Stone sets out to show he still meets the testosterone requirements of the hardboiled revenge-motivated action flick. We didn’t doubt it, Ollie. Haven’t seen this; some regret, some relief.
Take This Waltz Girl meets boy. Girl already has a boy. Girl goes to other girls and discusses being torn between boys. “New things are shiny!” says one girl. “New things get old”, replies another. This is the moral of writer/director Sarah Polley’s romantic comedy-drama, and it would be a better film if it didn’t work quite so hard to help you see that yes, it has a moral. It’s the writing that does it. Polley keeps getting her characters to explain things to each other. On the other hand, her eye for a strong image is extremely good, and she has Michelle Williams to play her lead. Also Seth Rogen and Luke Kirby, as the other angles of our romantic triangle, and they both do fine work; but really – Michelle Williams. She’s all the reason you need. Full review here. 3.5/5 DL
Ted What is it with American men and their stuffed toys? Mel Gibson and his beaver, Jason Segel and his Muppety puppet … and oh, look, here comes Mark Wahlberg and his teddy bear. OK, arrested development, I get that. A psychiatrist could expound at length on other theories, but in movies, the critters tend to be devices to shepherd their owners across the divide into adulthood. And so it is with Ted, in which a walking-talking bear owned by Wahlberg’s character (whose name is plain John, which is probably deliberate), forms part of a classic boy/girl/boy’s-best-friend triangle. Mila Kunis plays the forbearing (ha!) girl, and though she’s the smart one, she’s not smart enough to figure out how to come between boy and bear. Or maybe she’s just being smart about it? Whatever. Anyway, the main selling point of this Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy) debut feature seems to be to have the bear talk dirty. So – farts, turds, sex, race etc., all get a trot, but frankly, this isn’t as offensive as you expect. It’s more serial titter territory, sprinkled with moderately amusing if random cameos: Norah Jones, Sam Jones aka Flash Gordon, Ryan Reynolds, Tom Skerritt among others, with Patrick Stewart lending British irony as narrator. There’s a bit of heartstopping drama toward the end – a kind of “Exit bear, pursued by villain” moment – but mostly a good time seems to be had by all. Whether YOU will or not depends on how shockable you are, but let’s be clear: Team America: World Police it’s not. Oh, BTW, for all his foulmouthedness, the bear’s pretty appealing and his motion-capture animation is actually very good.2.5/5 HW
Total Recall “Inspired”, claim the end titles boldly, “by We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, by Philip K Dick”. Well, it’s true that this bizarre mishmash of genuinely astonishing design, lacklustre science fiction world building, exciting action and, um, much less exciting action does quote three whole sentences from Dick’s story. That’s more than Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 Schwarzenegger vehicle can boast. It’s also true that it isn’t one of Dick’s stronger or stranger works, so the new film shouldn’t be castigated for ignoring most of its ideas. (Fun trivia game for people who read too many film reviews: count the number of times any given Dick adaptation is accused of missing the best filmic opportunities inherent in the master’s writings). But what We Can Remember It For You Wholesale does have is a Matryoshka doll structure, hiding buried memories within buried memories so that every time you think you’ve got to the truth of Doug Quail’s adventure, you turn out to be wrong. (Yes, the character was originally called Quail, not Quaid. Apparently a name meaning “shrink fearfully away from” wasn’t manly enough for Ah-nold). This capacity to surprise at every turn is exactly what Len Wiseman’s remake lacks, and it’s exactly what it needs. Because it is, indeed, a remake, changing the setting and the details of Verhoeven’s film but somehow managing to retain every last significant plot beat. If you’ve seen the original, you’ve essentially seen this. I cannot express just how perversely misjudged this is. The prime opportunity offered by a story about false memories is the constant wrong-footing of the audience, and this opportunity only becomes greater when your audience already has a strong set of expectations as to where the story will go. A film about a man who wrongly thinks he remembers his past, which we all have memories of having seen before? Come on! Set us up to see what’s coming, and then do something else! But no: once again, lowly manual worker Doug Quaid will ask for a false-memory vacation trip in which he’s a superspy… and discover that he really is a super-spy. Once again, his wife will turn out not to be his wife, and the woman he dreams of will turn out to be real, and… well, if you didn’t see the original, don’t let me spoil the ending. Those of us who do know the original are forced to fall back on admiring the setting, which is almost Blade Runner-level impressive, and the action sequences, which are constant, and rather well executed… until the absurdly drawn-out finale, which just will not end, and which, at the basic level of “where are all these objects in physical space”, falls a long way short of coherence. This was the first point in the film where I was forced to remember that Wiseman is the auteur of the Underworld series. Colin Farrell and Jessica Biel are fine in their lead roles, and so, surprisingly enough, is Kate Beckinsale, usually one of my least favourite C-listers. The science fiction idiocies which underpin the plot are no more risible than the Hollywood norm, and a lot less risible than Verhoeven’s oxygenate-Mars-by-pushing-this-button concept. Fundamentally, all the film lacks is the one thing it needs most: any degree of suspense. Unless you never saw the original and like chase scenes, in which case it’s not a bad night out. 3/5 DL
Two Little Boys The power went down for a few minutes halfway through our screening of the new Sarkies brothers film. “Thank god”, said someone in the row behind me. “I’m out of here”. Those of us who toughed it out to the end agreed he’d cut and run too soon. The film’s second half is actually borderline watchable, and several scenes – notably the one where Gav (Maaka Pohatu) surfs on the back of a dolphin – are even rather good. Having made it through the first half’s vigorously banal unpleasantness, it would have been a shame to miss that dolphin… like letting someone slap you in the face for 45 minutes on the promise of a small, perfectly ripe strawberry and then not getting the strawberry. Look, I wanted this to be good. I would have settled for so-so. It’s awful. Nige (Bret Mckenzie) and Deano (Hamish Blake) have been best friends since school. Nige is thick as a plank. Deano is only as thick as half a plank, but he’s also insanely possessive and defines his life purely in terms of his friendship with Nige. So you’ve got a manipulative halfwit trying to keep a gormless quarterwit from establishing any other friendships, and Nige, unfortunately for his chances of breaking free of Deano’s influence, opens the film by running over a tourist and killing him, and runs to Deano for help. The film invests itself heavily in making you feel Nige’s panic, with lots of closeups on Mckenzie’s sweaty, twitching features. He feels the world closing in on him like a coffin, and lucky us, we get to feel it with him. Deano is a massively unpleasant character, and the many and lengthy body disposal scenes achieve only a few moments of black comedy, focusing instead on gross-out comedy, and getting stuck for the most part at gross-out. (Great sound design; the meaty thunk of an axe-blade burying itself in a corpse’s stomach has never been so clear or so resonant). In the second half, the lads take Nige’s friend Gav on a road tour, to keep him away from radio and TV broadcasts about the missing tourist. (Gav has found the tourist’s passport in Nige’s car, and is not quite as dumb as Nige or Deano: putting two and two together may well be within his powers). Gav, a cheerful, innocent chap, provides the film with a much-needed ray of sunshine, and the scenes in which Deano sets out to give him the best day of his life – a preemptive apology for murdering him, which he has decided is the only way to keep Nige safe – are as close as the Sarkies come to a well judged mix of the comic and the dark. Male infantilism has been one of the standard tropes of Hollywood comedy for a weary long time now. (You have to wonder what’s going on with that: some desperate attempt to lower women’s expectations so they’ll count it as a win if they can find a guy who doesn’t need a mother-substitute?) Its intrinsic interest was tapped out ages ago, and this film pretty much puts all its eggs in the basket labeled “watching grown men behave like children is delightfully amusing!” The Southland setting is nicely shot, and in the second half it occasionally provides a welcome distraction from the story. But Nige and Deano are just two more little boys who won’t grow up, and their protracted failure to grapple with adult life does not make for pleasant viewing. 2.5/5 DL
The Watch The major problem with the new Ben Stiller movie is that it’s not really a Ben Stiller movie. He’s in it, but it doesn’t play to his chameleon-like comedic strengths the way, say, Tropic Thunder or Zoolander did. This can result in a passable film (see the Fockers franchise), or sometimes even an excellent one (see Noah Baumbach’s brilliantly sardonic Greenberg, in which Stiller plays a man busy trying to be as bone-idle as possible). But what we’re dealing with here—an ensemble comedy of which Stiller is ostensibly the boldface star—is weak, middle-of-the-road fare, aimed, with its dick-and-fart jokes front-and-centre, squarely at teenage boys. Written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Superbad) with Jared Stern, the film had its title downgraded (gratuitously I think, at least for foreign markets) from Neighbourhood Watch after the shooting of Trayvon Martin. When his friend and colleague at the local Costco (a big-box store) is mysteriously killed, Stiller’s character, Evan, establishes a vigilante group to exact revenge. Among the few respondents to his flyers are Franklin (Jonah Hill), Bob (Vince Vaughan), and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade, who starred in TV’s The I.T. Crowd and is also a director in his own right: his first film, Submarine, made significant waves last year). Ayoade is the film’s one bright spot, but he’s not reason enough to see it. Hill and Vaughan ply their regular shtick; both have been funnier elsewhere—and Hill even this year, in the otherwise pointless warm-over of 21 Jump Street. The director, Akiva Schaffer, is one-third of the SNL-affiliated comedy-rap troupe The Lonely Island. He displays a moderately firmer grip on proceedings here than he did in his first film, the riotously stupid Hot Rod (2007)—but that’s not saying much. The storyline, what little of it there is, is predictable and, ultimately, inconsequential; the few jokes that aren’t directly related to bodily functions land with a giant thud. Sadly, as with so many movies of its type, the best bits are in the trailer. 2.5/5 HL
The Way “You don’t choose a life, Dad; you live one” is the line that tells you what you’re in for. Just so you know. Which isn’t to say this road movie is just an episodic greeting card, but it does have flat patches and the kind of plot predictability that has you knowing what’s going to happen just before it pops up on the screen. Never mind. It has great scenery, since it’s a kind of tourist doco for Spain (interestingly, the landscape looks a lot like New Zealand). An American widower (Martin Sheen) travels to Spain to collect the body of his son, killed when walking the 800km Camino de Santiago, a popular pilgrimage from the French Pyrenees to the Atlantic coast. Dad then decides to do the walk too, but has to suffer some unwanted companions: an irritatingly cheerful Dutchman, an acid Canadian and a garrulous Irishman (sounds like the basis for a joke, but at least the actors here are capable of lifting them above mere stereotype). Sheen does his crusty old bugger routine, and much international bickering ensues before the inevitable hugging and learning. And only after lots of shots of walking, drinking and smoking, some minor jeopardy and a final extraordinary piece of religious theatre which I won’t spoil by divulging. Directed and written by Emilio Estevez, Sheen’s son. The better-behaved one. 2.5/5 HW
The Well Digger’s Daughter Daniel Auteuil directs his own adaptation of a Marcel Pagnol novel: Pagnol being the author of Jean De Florette and Manon of the Spring. Neither of those books was adapted by Auteuil, and though he was in the films, he didn’t direct them, so it’s worth emphasising that he does a decent job getting this one onto the screen. He also stars, and when he’s got his acting hat on he’s more than decent. His Pascal Amoretti is a solid working class man in rural 1930s France, thoroughly lacking in imagination and just barely coping with the responsibilities of raising his six daughters on his own. The eldest, Patricia, falls in love with the wrong man and gets pregnant, and Amoretti’s response takes his family instantly to the brink of tragedy. This is a four-square, swelling-symphonic-music, golden-light-on-the-wheat-fields historical drama, with very few surprises, but it’s solidly made, and I found myself genuinely caring about the characters. There isn’t quite the distinction there needs to be between Auteuil the actor and Auteuil the director; his character is incapable of seeing his daughter’s point of view, and the film doesn’t always seem aware that she has one. It really should have been called The Well Digger. But it’s still moving. 3.5/5 DL
Where Do We Go Now? In 2007, the Lebanese actress-turned-filmmaker Nadine Labaki made her directorial début with Caramel, a romantic comedy set in Beirut. Her new film is both more resolute in its aims and more assuredly composed than was its comparatively frivolous predecessor. She again focusses on a group of women, but illuminates politics. The women plot schemes to stop the Muslim and Christian men of their isolated village—who hear of religious tensions nearby breaking into unrest—from killing one another. This is no war film, though: writing again with Jihad Hojeily, Labaki skilfully inserts light-hearted musical sequences to counterbalance the film’s thought-provoking moral and religious drama. (The inspiration for the song-and-dance routines, she says, comes from having watched Grease and animated Disney movies as a child.) An air of fable pervades: the precise country and time period are never named, and the deliberately fanciful title reinforces this spirit. 4/5 HL
Wunderkinder Yes, we need to remember the Holocaust. No, that does not mean it’s okay for mediocre talents to use it as a cheap route to emotional intensity. A subsidiary lesson of this plodding drama is that stories about good violinists are very tricky to put on film, because the violin is almost impossible to fake convincingly, and while you may be able to find people who can play the instrument to a high level, as here, the odds of them also being good actors are not great. A young German violinist living in the Ukraine befriends two young Jewish musicians. It’s 1941. Hitler turns on Stalin. Suddenly the friendship between these three children is the best chance their families have of living through a period when Germans living in the USSR are at huge risk… and advancing German tanks pose an even greater risks to Jews. Such good intentions behind the making of this film. So little competence. Full review here. 2.5/5 DL
Your Sister’s Sister Lynn Shelton is an actress-turned-filmmaker who first appeared in Nights and Weekends in 2009, and also appears in the up-coming (and excellent) Safety Not Guaranteed. Her new film as director, Your Sister’s Sister—which, like her début of a few years ago, Humpday, stars Mark Duplass—is loosely speaking a mumblecore film. Loosely speaking? It eschews some central tropes of the movement and retains others. It has dialogue improvised around a loosely scripted outline; handheld and often intimate camerawork, and, at its core, a naturalistic, confessional mood. Where it differs from the bulk of previous mumblecore is in its casting and setting. The narrative, which begins with a humorous outburst at a memorial service, is driven by a depressed thirtysomething man’s quest for a little peace and quiet. The film is set in Seattle, and the Pacific Northwest provides, as it did for Kelly Reichardt in Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, for the observation of some wonderfully calming scenery. Emily Blunt—speaking here in her native British accent—plays Iris. She sends her strung-out BFF, Jack (Duplass), to her family’s ‘getaway’ cabin for some “alone time,” but, when he gets there, he finds her sister Hannah (the wonderful Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married) is already there, to get some rest and relaxation of her own. Jack and Hannah’s conversation, and in fact the film as a whole, comes to settle on the relationship between Iris and Jack (hence the circuitous title)—although Hannah’s position as an unexpected third wheel certainly figures prominently. Shelton, whose technical proficiency behind the camera has progressed markedly since Humpday, brings some nice touches to proceedings: handsome establishing shots which last a beat longer or shorter than we expect; a deft comprehension, in editing and coverage, of the rhythms of her actors’ line deliveries and the nuances of their interactions; and continuing shooting some scenes longer than another director might have thought was necessary. In diverging from mumblecore traditions, and discarding some of the movement’s less mature customs, Shelton has produced a thoroughly enjoyable indie comedy that is refreshingly distinct from the overly colourised forced quirk of the Fox Searchlight school of ‘Hollywood-indies.’ (They began, essentially, with Napoleon Dynamite and Little Miss Sunshine, and have come to seem rote in their design; the latest among them, Ruby Sparks, is borderline unwatchable.) Your Sister’s Sister is witty and, at times, even touching. Its major downside is a third-act montage deployed with a heavy hand—but the fleeting ending, which requires something of an alertness to Shelton’s inventive framing, is sublime. A longer version of this review, going into the history and evolution of the mumblecore movement, here. 4.5/5 HL