Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

Archive for the tag “Film”

What made the criminally under-seen Game Night one of 2018’s best comedies?

This article first appeared on on 1st February 2019

I’m not often to be found raving about a Hollywood comedy. For years, most of the Judd Apatow movies and “relatable” coming-of-middle-age stories starring the same line-up of faces have languished around the 3 to 3-and-a-half star mark for me—a few LOLs, sure, but too many poop jokes and usually lazy narratives.

Imagine my surprise, then, to visit the cinema for Game Night one evening last year, not to review but just for the heck of it, and to like it so much we promptly rewatched it on a plane in December and then again on New Year’s Eve when ecstatically forcing our family to appreciate it. What is it about Game Night that, despite its shaky, insecure beginnings and low audience expectations, it garnered both critical and popular acclaim? How did it list at number 20 in my Films of the Year? What made my cinephile husband buy the DVD just so we can watch the Special Features?

Let me count the ways:

The characters are likeable

At its core, Game Night boasts a central couple, Annie and Max (Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman), who are actually nice to each other. They’re trying for a family but they’re not at each other’s throats, and even when they’re hanging out with their game night friends, Annie and Max are the sort of team you’d want to be married into. Attracted to each other’s competitive nature, they work together not against (nice foreshadowing which becomes delightfully crucial as the story unspools). And this benevolence isn’t cringy or played for laughs/mockery, but they portray a genuine affection and suitability for one another that makes them feel more realistic and certainly like a couple you’d actually want to be friends with. (Maybe outside of a competitive environment, at least.)

Jason Bateman plays Jason Bateman, but that’s not actually a criticism. Bateman (Horrible Bosses 1 & 2Identity ThiefOffice Christmas Party—if you’ve watched these, you’ll see where I’m going here) seems to be one of those actors who is appealing and manages to portray sufficiently differentiated characters in each movie he makes, even though technically he’s just doing the same thing every time. How do we let him get away with that? It’s not his wholesome good looks (although he does have wholesome good looks—but he doesn’t have Ryan Gosling’s “Hey girl” twinkle in his eye, so you never feel he’s actually flirting with you). He doesn’t change his voice. He doesn’t even change his hair, for crying out loud. And he doesn’t age a day.

In Game Night, Bateman is at once the type of guy a girl would want to date, and an everyman the blokes can root for: he’s no baby-making stud in the bedroom; he is publicly humiliated in one of the most embarrassing childhood stories you’ve ever heard; he feels inadequate next to his cooler, richer, suaver brother Brooks (a delightful change of pace for Kyle Chandler, who is usually all furrowed eyebrows and taciturn, working for the CIA/FBI/some Government agency). But neither is Bateman’s Max a loser—he’s not as nerdy as Ed Helms (who implausibly winds up married to Christina Applegate in Vacation); he’s not endearingly tubby like Seth Rogen in everything. He’s just an ordinary, nice, functional guy in a plaid shirt with a cute, smart wife who’s as supportive of him as he is kind to her. I love these guys!!

(Interestingly, the original writer—oh yes, this meal took over four years to cook and had many, many chefs—had Bateman in mind when he wrote it, so Jason was on board from the very beginning, even considering directing it himself when things really stalled during the production process. So while Bateman can’t be considered a revelation exactly, he’s certainly perfect for the part.)

As Annie, Rachel McAdams also deserves accolades. I don’t want to dwell on McAdams as the romantic heroine—The Notebook makes me sick, although I confess The Vow made me cry—but Game Night must surely have felt like a casting gamble in terms of her recent career. We knew this girl had a deft touch with physical and verbal comedy from her breakout in Mean Girls, but thereafter things seem to have gone decidedly dry. (SouthpawTo the Wonder? The shoulda-just-left-it-as-a-BBC-miniseries abomination State of Play?) She was terrific in the small and potentially thankless role of Doctor Strange’s girlfriend, where she managed to spark up some chemistry with old Grumpy Cumberbatch (don’t get me wrong—he, too, was terrific and continues to elevate every movie he appears in). But she’s not exactly Rose Byrne or Kate McKinnon when it comes to “who will hold her own against a funny male in a buddy comedy?”.

But McAdams is clearly having the good time heralded in the movie’s apposite Queen song, and with seemingly effortless comedic timing she nails every line. Compare her with Olivia Munn, also paired with Bateman in Office Christmas Party (which, incidentally, boasts McKinnon as literally the only funny thing about the whole film) and McAdams wins hands down. (It’s not this article’s place to slag off Munn, and to be fair she wasn’t written any sort of decent role, but suffice it to say Office Party’s couple lack chemistry, cuteness or comedy.)

The supporting players

Did you see Catastrophe, the bitterly hilarious sitcom with the Irish woman and American man who shack up because she gets pregnant? [Psst – Seasons 1-3 are on NEON – Ed.] Co-writer/star Sharon Horgan gets her Hollywood due here, playing the wryly impatient but never bitchy date of Ryan, one of the game night regulars (a handsomely incredulous block of wood played by Billy Magnusson, who seems to mainly play handsomely incredulous blocks of wood). Rather than feeling like the token Brit in a Tinseltown movie (“I’m not British, I’m Irish”), Horgan’s character is as fleshed-out and cleverly written as all the others.

Including “Todd” from Breaking Bad. Remember Todd? It’s redundant to say he’s the guy who didn’t fare too well in that show, since none of the characters got through it unscathed. But in Game Night, actor Jesse Plemons steals all his scenes by playing the piteously lonely, divorced cop Gary as deadly serious. Not so much as a wink to the camera, no tacit admission that his character’s a big loser; instead, Gary is someone we laugh at (but with utter sympathy) and root for throughout. Plemons’ Gary (instructed by the directors to channel actor Michael Shannon) is genius.

There are no poop jokes

Call me a prude, but for me, one of the failings of Bridesmaids was its descent into scatological humour. I just don’t find poop funny at all. (To this end, American Vandal Season 2 pales in comparison with its astonishing Season 1.) There is no poop in Game Night! There is, however, comedy involving blood, and it’s so brilliantly handled that even I (the killjoy) laughed every time. One scene, unfortunately spoiled by the movie’s trailer, involves the charmingly realistic use of YouTube to find an instructional video on removing a bullet. That’s not just inspired because it’s how we all solve problems nowadays, but it counts as body horror! It even ties into a key scene later on that has the audience crying “Nooooo!”. So it’s clever and classic. And no poop was required.

Somebody thought this through

But you know what really works in Game Night? The writing. And this is because the script was painstakingly written (and rewritten, by directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein) and the jokes zing thanks to careful crafting. Lines land with perfect timing and scenes rightly end when they’ve run their course. It is an exhilarating watch from beginning to end, with no flab.

This is unusual in an era where improvisation has gone from being an unexpected delight (as it felt back in 2007 with Knocked Up) to a staple (and thus often lazy) way to get laughs. With all these SNL actors around, it’s not entirely out-of-order to allow a little flexibility on set—the DVD extras for Office Christmas Party demonstrate all their attempts at humour, which allowed the editor huge leeway in picking the cream of the mediocre crop. But more often than not an underwritten script means the movie gets made in the editing suite, and this can often be at the expense of story. You know, plot. And one thing Game Night has is a firm hand on is its narrative. Characters are developed and reach resolutions, and more importantly, this genre-spanning comedy knows where it’s going and the journey feels purposeful. (To be honest, it took me three viewings so far to follow all the twists and turns.)

Along with a fantastically edgy score by Cliff Martinez, who usually composes for considerably grimmer films by Soderbergh and Winding Refn, and an opening credits sequence worthy of a Bond movie, Game Night upturns all your expectations like someone flipping the Monopoly board in a fury. And like the very best games, you’ll want to play it more than once.


If not now, then when?

The blog is back. Well, maybe not conceptually (isn’t Instagram the way to communicate nowadays? A picture paints a thousand words, after all) – but this particular blog is being revived. In taking the bull by the horns and ditching Real Life for five months to go live in Europe, I’m looking forward to travel-writing and film-reviewing and gaining inspiration from soaking up the plentiful culture in two of my favourite countries.

This isn’t about a brag. Lots of people travel, and lots of people make different choices on how to get the most fulfillment out of their life. But my husband and I have always spoken about “one day living abroad” – whether in the US (no longer desirable), England (um, no longer desirable) or somewhere a bit more fantastical, like Paris.

So early last year, following (as is so often the case) a fairly significant medical incident for him, and the prospect of a fifth rewarding-but-exhausting year of teaching for me, we agreed that “there’s never a good time” and that that time is now. So I spoke to my incredibly supportive principal about taking unpaid Refreshment Leave (apparently that’s a thing in the secondary school teachers’ collective agreement) for half of 2019, so that we can settle for a decent chunk of time in one European place, soak up the local lifestyle, speak the language, and see the sights without having to race around like most tourists must when in a town for only a few days.

HOW EXCITING! and how fortunate we are to be able to do this. It has involved saving, strategising and being philosophical about what our lives will be like come July when we return to a comparatively impoverished New Zealand winter. But it’s worth it! and we are very mindful that not everyone can take a trip like this, and we’re very appreciative.

The plan is this:

  • 3 days/nights in Singapore, so I can show my husband my “third home” (where I lived as a child in the mid-1980s), stay with my former flatmate from the UK and eat amazing street food for super cheap.
  • Then 3 weeks in Rome, living in a wee apartment near Piazza Navona, where we are promised to experience pizza, prosecco and pumping disco music issuing from the bar below our home. (I wish that last bit was a joke, but the Airbnb reviews are pretty compelling. The owner even leaves out earplugs.) Also lots of culture, art, churches (which kind of combine culture and art really, don’t they?), the Cinecitta studio tour (where Fellini and other great Italian directors have made their great movies), self-guided walking tours of famous Roman film locations, and a whole lot more. I’ll also get to speak Italian (learned venti-sette anni fa at the University of Auckland – an explanation which literally rolls off my tongue, I’m so used to explaining to Italian restauranteurs why on earth someone from la Nuova Zelanda could possibly speak their relatively obscure language).
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  • And then we head to Paris for a month in the 11th arrondissement, where we shall do more of the above but this time with a French flavour (less pizza, more duck; less prosecco, more champagne; no disco music but instead the Bataclan concert venue directly across the road). Paris also has plenty of film-related stuff to do, and a few art galleries of consequence. They have also been recently in some political turmoil which will be interesting to witness. I suspect cultural reflections will ensue.
  • By then it’s mid-April, and we’re off to stay in a small Medieval village in Tuscany, from where we can jump off into day trips to Siena, Assisi, a couple of nights in San Gimignano, some jaunts to Lucca and Florence. We already have our tastebuds set on a fantastic truffle bar in Florence. And more art and culture. (By then I should even be well into the swing of reading books! Imagine! I cannot wait.)
  • Did somebody say “Yes you Cannes!”? One big reason for taking a few months away is that the school holidays (God bless them – no, really – without them teachers would not make it through the year) fall at the wrong time for the Cannes film festival in May each year. I was fortunate enough to go in 2012, accredited by the Sunday Star-Times, and my husband has always dreamed of going, so the Dillawatts are off! We long since booked our incredibly-expensive accommodation (which dries up swiftly, since the whole world’s film journalists descend upon this idyll in the South of France each year), so here’s hoping our accreditation comes through (it will), and once that list is posted, stating the films we’ll get to see – the new Tarantino, the new Scorsese, we hope – we will be fit to burst with excitement. You will be able to read all about it here.
  • After that we have more film festivals, more jaunts around Italy, some art up in Venice, and still a few gaps in the itinerary to fill (Spain? Croatia?) before we land in London in early July, spend several days with friends and family, take in more art, and then fly home. I’ll be back, inspired, undoubtedly glamorous, and hopefully refreshed, to teach  my lovely students again from Term 3 onwards – and into 2020.

SO that’s the grand plan for our European tour. If you’d like to read about our travels and travails, please Follow this blog, and/or follow me on Instagram – madame_dillawatt – if you prefer your thousand words squished into one picture. I’ll try to make this experience fun to watch.

There’s something on the starboard bow (STAR TREK interview)

This interview first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 5 May 2013

It’s a hive of activity at the press junket for the new Star Trek Into Darkness movie, as publicists brandishing clipboards and stop-watches bustle about a plush hotel on Sydney’s waterfront. We print journos get the after-lunch slot, so by the time Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine enter the business suite, they’ve been performing for a full morning of filmed interviews. Zachary apologises for being sick (a cold caught on the plane from LA a few days prior) while Chris, more handsome in real life but less light-hearted than his character, perches on his seat with a slightly furrowed brow.

Compared with the rather low-key actors, director J.J. Abrams is a bundle of energy, gracious to a fault. “Thankyou, thank you so much, I really appreciate it” he says when I tell him that on the strength of what I’d seen in Into Darkness, his next project seems to be in safe hands. (Abrams is set to direct the latest Star Wars, amongst similarly high expectations from a zealous fanbase.)

We’re at the beginning of the Star Trek Into Darkness world tour, and in a few hours the talent will be attending the Australasian premiere before heading off to Russia, Germany, LA and ultimately London for the biggest shindig. More of the stars will jump aboard as the tour circumnavigates the globe, but Abrams, Quinto and Pine (along with New Zealander Karl Urban) are in it for the long haul.

Star Trek Into Darkness takes us to a time when Star Fleet is under terrorist threat, and the crew of the Starship Enterprise must set off on a voyage to right some wrongs. Pine reprises the role of ladies man Captain Jim Kirk, with Quinto returning as his right-hand man/Vulcan, Mr Spock. (At this point it is probably worth mentioning that while Pine looks just like his onscreen persona, Quinto is mercifully unrecognisable without the pointy ears and thick glossy fringe. I decide not to tell him though.)

Portraying characters who have been around for decades and are protected and revered by particularly fervent devotees takes some guts. How fine a line had to be walked between doing impersonations and creating one’s own take on the genre?

Abrams’ commitment to maintaining the essence of a legendary franchise is evident. “The approach to everything – look, design, casting, props – was to take the spirit of what was done nearly 50 years ago and do our version, but be true not to the letter but to the spirit,” he explains. In casting younger versions of such seminal characters, he gave his actors free reign. “I tried to cast people who were in the realm, but then say to them ‘This is yours – do not try to copy what he or she did, do your thing’.” Abrams compliments Pine’s ability to combine his “natural, wonderful swagger” with an appreciation of “the [William] Shatner vibe”. “It was a very careful tightrope walk but they all did it beautifully”, he says proudly.

Pine agrees that the freedom to interpret their roles provided a great sense of fun. “Because it [is] this alternate, other-dimensional universe, prequel situation, there were fantastic opportunities to nod and wink, to give especially the long term fans of the franchise these moments of connection and resonance and ‘Oh my God, I can see Shatner there, DeForest Kelley there’ – and I think that’s the fun of it.”

In the 2009 film Quinto’s role was all the more challenging for his having to act alongside his predecessor, Leonard Nimoy. Far from being intimidating, however, he says it actually helped. “We spent a lot of time together, and subsequently became incredibly close. He is such a magnanimous person that I only ever felt supported”. Acknowledging that Nimoy had consultation rights on the casting of the younger Spock, Quinto adds “It was comforting and reassuring to know I could use him as a resource that none of the other actors necessarily [had].” Then, sounding like his onscreen persona: “But there are certain qualities of the character that cannot be ignored or denied”. He says it was a challenge bringing his own experience and perspective to the role, helped by J.J’s clear mandate that this should be a fresh interpretation.

Both leading men are full of praise for their great leader, but you can’t help believing that someone with Abrams’ guileless enthusiasm really would be great to work with. Quinto describes him as “one of the foremost directors of our time. I think people will look back at him as a filmmaker who helped shape the direction of storytelling in this particular era, which is a unique convergence of technology and expectation of audiences, so to balance those two things requires a very talented and uniquely possessed individual”.

Indeed, Abrams comes across as the typical movie-struck lad who came to work in Hollywood and is making the most of every opportunity. However, Star Trek may seem an unusual offering to someone who didn’t grow up a fan. “With all respect to Trek” he admits, “I never really connected with it as a kid, and part of that might have been that I wasn’t sophisticated enough – I had friends who were very smart who loved it… There was something very talky and boring, frankly, for me”. However, in being given the project he was adamant he still wanted “scenes of real conflict and debate, so we have that in the movie but I didn’t want to do a drawing-room film in space”. He doesn’t see his renditions as a sci-fi project, but as a “movie about people who made me laugh, who I connected with, who happened to be on this crazy journey, this massive adventure”. He is therefore creating an experience as much for the ordinary filmgoer as the fanboys.

Despite his embrace of the technological and aesthetic opportunities of modern-day filmmaking, at the heart of all Abrams’ work is a yearning for connection – between his characters and with his audiences. Into Darkness sees people thrown into emotional turmoil, and the archetypally unemotional, such as Spock, forced to confront real human feeling. I note that at one point in the film Spock seems to give all men an “out” for not expressing themselves when he says “You are assuming that because I choose not to feel, I do not care”. Quinto says playing such a character, for whom emotion has to be pared down, presented both a challenge and a gifts. “Spock’s choice [not to feel] is reinforced by his genetic history and his culture and civilisation, and unfortunately human men don’t have the same shield to hide behind.” But there are various “triggers” in the story that bring about a need for Spock to confront aspects of himself he would have previous avoided. Certainly, these make for some of the more amusing, honest and touching moments in the film.

With all this touchy-feely stuff going on, viewers may be relieved to know there are still a few baddies to keep things dark. Notably, Benedict Cumberbatch, star of TV, stage and silver screen, appears as the (inevitably?) British-voiced villain, John Harrison. Cumberbatch would be a revelation if we didn’t already know he is incredible in everything he does, but it seems Abrams came late to the BC fan club, having a tape of Sherlock sent to him by his producer. Once he had watched it, however, the director knew he’d seen a star. “He’s off the charts”, Abrams enthuses. “He is so talented, and his work ethic I respect so much…His being around, everyone just had a slightly straighter back – it was amazing, you feel it, he’s like an alpha thespian, he comes in and you’re like “whoa”. He elevated every moment”.

Far from Hollywood-speak hyperbole, Abrams is right – Cumberbatch is utterly captivating, delivering a punch to what is already a terrific blockbuster adventure of the highest order. J. J. Abrams clearly takes his work seriously, and we can be glad he knows how to follow-up a hit with a wallop.

At the end of our interview, Quinto apologised yet again for being snuffly so to put him at ease I told them both about Brandon Cronenberg’s new movie Antiviral, where in a not-too-distant future celebrity culture has gone so mad that fans purchase and are willingly infected with a celebrity’s illness. Both livened up on hearing this, and found it a fascinating conceit. I felt pretty chuffed to be able to tell people in the film industry about a movie they should see.

Nearly two weeks later, I’m still battling a cold.

Andrew Adamson, ring master (Sunday Star-Times interview)

This article first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 24 February 2013

TRUE STORY: Once upon a time, a little boy grew up in his family’s Russian circus. He trained as a contortionist when he was three. By five he was learning to fly as an aerialist. When he was 14 he kept running away to work on building sites because he wanted to be a carpenter.

Director Andrew Adamson can’t help but laugh at the irony.

As it turns out, the boy couldn’t escape circus life, and little Igor Zaripov grew up to become a star of the world-famous Cirque du Soleil. He also has a sideline in pulling double-decker buses with his teeth.

Adamson, whose new film Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away was released last week, is the New Zealand-born and based director of the first two Shrek and Narnia movies (“Notice I always do one sequel and then move off “). With a career that began in visual effects departments before he moved into directing animated and visually effected movies, this latest film presented Adamson with a completely new challenge. Extracting key acts from seven of the Cirque du Soleil acrobatic/aerialist shows as they ran in Las Vegas, he has built a cinematic experience out of the live performance.

Already a big fan of Cirque, Adamson says it appealed to him to do things “that feel a little bit creatively risky”. With a typical lack of ego he admits that because this was his first time working in 3D, he was glad when producer James Cameron, with whom who he had worked years ago on True Lies, came on board. “I was like, ‘Give me information – tell me what I need to know because I need to learn this’.”

He describes a similar relationship with the “very supportive” Sir Peter Jackson. “There’s not really a sense of competition – when you get together you find there’s only so many people, particularly in New Zealand, that do what you do, and you can actually talk about shared experience.” Adamson attended the Hobbit premiere in November “to support a friend’s film”.

Rather than simply shoot a “concert movie”, Adamson watched all the Vegas Cirque shows in order to choose the scenes he wanted in the film, then returned twice with his crew to shoot with hi-tech equipment, capturing the performances in 3D with high-speed photography and extra lighting where necessary. Some of the resulting footage is from the live shows, performed before an audience; other parts were filmed specially, so the cameras could get up close and capture the detail of the breathtaking choreography.

In compiling his storyboard, Adamson took a different tack. “The initial thought was you take all the biggest acts from all the shows and string them together, but that was just like listening to music turned up too loud the whole time [so] I started to think about the shows themselves and how they have these big moments and then these very intimate moments, and then tried to create that dynamic within the film.” He wrote a simple narrative thread about a girl’s quest to find a handsome young aerialist who disappears, aiming to provide an emotional connection for a cinema audience.

Given he couldn’t shout “Cut!” and demand to reshoot a movement in the middle of a sequence, Adamson explains this method of film-making differs greatly from the highly controlled and constructed production of his previous movies. “Animation is very technical. Everything that’s on there, you have to think of – nothing happens by accident. With Cirque it’s more about capturing.”

The result is spectacular, as the capacity for close-ups of extraordinary moves gives the audience a sense of how strong and agile the performers are. Adamson also exploited the nature of film to slow down various shots so we can truly marvel. The leads were surprised at some of his choices, explaining that one highlighted move was just a transition, not the main part of the trick. His response was “Look what you are doing there – that’s particularly beautiful . . . I can see you twisting your body in a way that to me seems impossible and so I want to concentrate on that.”

Audiences will agree that most of the performance looks impossible to mere mortals. Yet the stars manage to conduct complicated and strenuous moves without a grimace. Adamson recounts how performers would come up to him after a shoot “and they’re dripping with perspiration and breathing heavily and you go, ‘well yeah, that’s really hard but it doesn’t look it’.” The musical accompaniment is integral to the experience. One show, Love, uses Beatles’ songs; others have an orchestral soundtrack that matches the specific moves on stage. Adamson was somewhat bound by the music Cirque prescribes for its acts, but also had a piece composed specially for the breathtaking finale where performers are dancing in mid-air with one arm holding a strap so they appear to be suspended from the sky.

Maybe one day Igor will build his dream house, but for now he’s creating dreams for his audience.

Oscar predictions 2013

Well, you can’t be a critic without having an opinion, right? So here, on the almost-eve of the 2013 Academy Awards, I present my predictions for who will win on the night.

Best Picture

A few years ago, when they expanded the shortlist of nominees from five to a hundred (or so it felt), it seemed like any jolly fool could win – even War Horse got a look in, though mercifully it didn’t cross the finishing line. This year, however, all the Best Picture nominees are worthy adversaries, even if I have loudly publicised my boredom of Lincoln and as yet failed to utter an underwhelmed word about Zero Dark Thirty.

This category is also a mystery to me, though the absence of a shoe-in brings me hope that the ceremony may not be entirely dull. If precedent has been set by the Globes and the BAFTAs (which, apparently, the Academy doesn’t listen to), then Argo will win. Personally I’d like it to be Life of Pi, but there’s been very little buzz about this film, so it’s unlikely. People seem to be Les Mised-out (I blame Anne’s dreadful Globes speech, but perhaps the film had already had its day by then). ZDT has done itself out of contention due to Torturegate. Some say Lincoln’s sudden outing as a fiddler of history has ruined its chances too. Amour can be fobbed off with Best Foreign Film. Beasts of the Southern Wild is too left-field, classic “It’s enough to reward the new kid on the block just by nominating him”. And Quentin isn’t going to win anything other than Best Original Screenplay (maybe) for Django.

So what does that leave us? Silver Linings Playbook? It’s terrific but it’s not a Best Picture. My half-hearted bet (though I’d be happy for it to be true) is on Argo. Since Affleck got the very public snub by missing a Director nomination, it’s the least they can do.

Best Director

Although it’d be nice for Ang Lee to get it, it’s just not his year. So I’m going for Michael Haneke for Amour. That way they can give Quentin the screenplay gong, Haneke the Best Foreign Film, and everyone’s sort-of-happy-even-if-not-over-the-moon. Plus, his film is mastery at work, and he totally deserves it.

Best Actor

Bored or not, I cannot fault Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance in/as Lincoln, so he is set to make history as the only person to win three Best Actor gongs. Huzzah.

Best Actress

I’m actually placing all my money on Emmanuelle Riva. I watched Amour for the second time recently, and was bowled over by her performance. Quvenzhane Wallis has (in theory) her whole acting life ahead of her, so hers is a token, cutesy “Look! Youngest ever nominee!” nomination, though she did put on a terrific show. Jennifer Lawrence is consistently good, but doesn’t beat the competition here. Similarly, Jessica Chastain will be back; so will Naomi Watts. I want and believe this will be Riva’s time. As she turns 86 on the day of the ceremony, it would be the most moving and wonderful birthday present.

The Support Acts

Obviously Anne Hathaway will win for Les Miserables, and that’s OK with me, as long as she does a bloody good speech this time. And most likely Christoph Waltz will take home yet another little gold statuette for Django Unchained. It does seem like something he’s done before and will no doubt churn out again, but at the same time he was great in it. However, if there is a God, this one will go to Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was amazing in The Master. My fingers are still a wee bit crossed for a miracle.

Best Foreign Film

As above – Amour. That way they can acknowledge it’s a great film, but still leave the Actual Best Picture slot open to Movies Without Subtitles (or Films sans sous-titres as I like to call them).

Documentary Feature

Searching for Sugar Man. That is all.

Original Screenplay

This is Quentin’s patch. They can give him this in lieu of Directing or Best Film because he’s the brains behind the babble, and it’s a bit like saying “Hey, your film was awesome, but, y’ know…”. I don’t disagree with their choice if they do – I liked Django Unchained much more then Inglourious Basterds and have been a big Tarantino fan since the very beginning. Dude has a way with words – bring it.

Adapted Screenplay

Yes, it may be Argo, but shouldn’t this be the “unfilmable” Life of Pi? Yes, it should.

The Rest

I’ve not seen any of the Animated Features strangely, so that’s anyone’s guess. Cinematography will go to Life of Pi, unless Roger Deakins wins for Skyfall, but I don’t believe he will. Costume Design is more likely to reward Anna Karenina than Les Mis. Visual Effects – The Hobbit? Life of Pi? Hobbit? Pi?…


With apologies to the less glamorous awards, I don’t have a fixed view on what will or should win. But one thing seems clear: Sunday’s ceremony will be a pot-luck dinner of shared goodies, rather than a greedy feast for any one film – and since Lincoln is up for 12 but looks unlikely to pull more than a couple out of the bag, this comes as a great relief.


Who and what do you think will win an Oscar on 24th February?

Cannes -the final countdown

I had better back up a little, and talk about the last films of my festival.

Friday morning was Cosmopolis. I’ve been saying “eagerly awaited” but perhaps more by my companions from Cronenberg’s homeland of Canada than the general populace. Mind you, anyone who has read Don Delillo’s novel will have high hopes. The director (aptly called le realisateur in French, which subscribes to the auteurist view that the director creates and is responsible overall for the film – a philosophy that understandably riles writers, editors and cinematographers! – but in this case and others where the director has also written or adapted the script, it’s not so outrageous) has spoken in interviews about the challenges of creating a visual movie from the author’s brilliantly worded and wordy story. Interestingly, Cronenberg said this was easier than coming up with an original idea, as it took him 6 days to write this screenplay, whereas new stories can take years. To this end, he has lifted whole excerpts of dialogue straight from the book, and right from the opening scene where Robert Pattinson gets into his limo, he sticks to Delillo’s “script”.

The story is a challenge in itself: city moneyman Eric Packer wants a haircut, meaning his limo must cross town during a series of demonstrations and security hindrances caused by the President (“Just so I’m clear,” he asks his driver “which President?”) being in town. Pattinson does an excellent job of being neither British nor Edward Cullen, as a rolling cast of players in his life are brought forward for their scene. Most of this takes place in the car which has been rebuilt in very Cronenbergian fashion to accommodate a rich man’s daily requirements, including doctor’s appointments, financial updates from staff, and not-so-random sex.

And so it goes. Talky talky it sure is, initially thrilling and inviting us to listen intently, though I admit to being distracted by other things during Samantha Morton’s strange monologue (not dissimilar, in delivery, to her omniscient android in Minority Report. Which, for this film, is not really a compliment). But there is something of a plot trajectory, and several very well conceived set-pieces, including a simultaneously hilarious and moving funeral for a rap superstar. The actors are generally terrific, and even those playing people we’ve seen before manage to be commanding (Paul Giamatti, I’m talking to you). Mostly it just looks bloody great, sounds terrific, and is something of a return to Cronenberg’s earlier, creepier work prior to the excellent and violent A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. If this sounds like you, it’s a must-see.

Saturday was a big film day, since time was running out. First up, Jeff Nicholls’ follow-up to Take Shelter, with Matthew McConaughey as the eponymous Mud, a man in hiding on an island in a remote part of Mississippi. Billed as a modern-day Huckleberry Finn, Mud is befriended by a couple of adventurous young boys, one of whom (a superlative Tye Sheridan who starred in last year’s Palme D’Or winner The Tree of Life) is captivated by his purported love story and commits to helping Mud. It wasn’t as good as people hoped (ie. as amazing as Take Shelter) but it is a good movie, and no doubt we’ll get a bite of this cherry come festival time.

Straight out of that screening and into the premiere of the ten short films in competition, one of which Night Shift was directed by NZ’s Zia Mandviwalla, who waited nervously with the other young filmmakers before going up on stage to great applause, prior to the screening. Of the ten films, I loved three: (with absolutely no bias) the NZ entry is a wonderful, subtle, curious and ultimately moving 14 minutes of a reality for many New Zealanders, delivering a terrific revelation that I didn’t see coming. The Australian entry was far from subtle, but showed bombast and was affecting and exhilarating (even if the manipulations were obvious); and finally, one of the ten actually made us laugh (it would seem it’s easier to come up with a gritty, challenging mini-movie than something for laughs). The French-Canadian film was brilliant, and I spoke briefly to the protaganist outside the cinema after, mainly to thank her for the light relief. Of the rest of the ten, I found two to be actually pretty poor – not technically so much (the wonders of digital seem to eliminate that complaint) but I didn’t like either story, found takes to be held too long, acting to be a bit “acty”, dialogue unrealistic, and even 13 minutes felt too long. As it happened, one of my “Yeah, that was pretty good”s eventually won the prize: sparse on dialogue, aptly called Silence, a Turkish film about Kurds suffering and struggling to make ends meet in a difficult family situation.

To round off the cinematic day, I went to see the pre-screening of the Festival’s Closing Film, an adaptation of the French novel Therese Desqueroux, starring Amelie‘s Audrey Tautou and hearthrob Gilles Lelouche. I studied the book at University – well, I say “studied” but I suspect I read the English translation and missed the nuances – but Claude Miller’s last film seems a fairly straightforward rendition of a tale of a feisty woman who marries into a life that eventually feels like imprisonment, and goes to desperate means to free herself. It’s fine; the Bridgeway crowd will love it; I suspect the critics at Cannes were underwhelmed.

And then it was the last day of camp. Cannes thinned out enormously in the final days, and you could discern a feeling of sadness tinged with relief that we’d all soon be going home. I’d been warned Cannes would be exhausting, and it’s true that while sitting in a cinema isn’t inherently tiring, racing from place to place and being on a timetable and eating dinner at 10pm and getting up just after 7 can be. Hence my taking off to Italy for 10 days rest.

But there is still time on Day 12 to see any of the Competition movies one may have missed. So thankfully I went to see Michael Haneke’s Amour, already the buzz of the festival and most-likely-to-win. Eschewing the outright nastiness of many of his recent films, it is still a devastating story of how far love will take you in the care of your loved one. Two central performances by elderly French actors, with support from the omnipresent Isabelle Huppert. It is quiet, meaningful, slow without once losing our engagement, and completely non-judgmental. A flawless film, expertly made, and highly recommended to those who are up for it. That said, I will not be seeing it again for a while, and there are people I know to whom I will be advising caution. But a deserved win from a line-up of admittedly mixed films this year. (Get me! I say that like I’m a regular! But really, even I could tell there were more average films this year than one would expect in a festival of this renown.)

So that was Cannes. The city packed down on Sunday night, I had one last pizza dinner with my Canadian family, and Monday morning I boarded the first of eventually five trains over a ten and a half hour journey into Tuscany.

I have been vowing not to see a film for the next week, but this evening I noticed the wee cinema here in Lucca is showing Dark Shadows (it has received lukewarm reviews, but it can’t be that bad, surely??)…

And the Oscar goes to…

This article first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 19th February 2012

It’s that time again.  On February 26th, a narrow selection of the hundreds of films released in 2011 will be up for judgement.  Here are my predictions of which will earn an Oscar, and which actually deserve it.

Best Picture

There are some great films in the mix, along with some awful dross.  While worthy, The Tree of Life is probably considered too “artistic” – nominally a Brad Pitt movie (but really not), it covers life, death, the universe and everything.  Critics and audiences were polarised.  Alternatively, the charming French silent movie The Artist, about a movie star whose career wanes with the advent of talking pictures, only has one-off novelty value (although the Academy did go for Slumdog Millionaire).  My money’s on family drama-com The Descendants – not as innovative in concept as these two, but it works quite simply as a terrific, all-round quality film.  And it won the Golden Globe.


The Academy may reward the well-regarded Terrence Mallick (The Tree of Life is only his fifth feature film in four decades) or the innovations of Michel Hazavanicius (The Artist).  In terms of a quality “body of work”, my vote goes to Mallick.

Actor in a Leading Role

George Clooney won the Globe and is likely to take the Oscar (The Descendants). He’s great, but not a stretch from other Clooney characters.  By comparison, Gary Oldman deserves accolades for his brilliant Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – taking the seminal Alec Guinness role of a British spy hunting out a mole in the secret service of the 1970s.

Actress in a Leading Role

The Academy likes actresses who play real people (the Queen, June Carter-Cash, Aileen Wuornos, Edith Piaf) which means Michelle Williams and Meryl Streep (both of whom won Globes this year) look equally promising.  Williams lost out last year for Blue Valentine so deserves a second shot for her rendition of Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn – but Streep’s formidable portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady will no doubt take this election.

Actor in a Supporting Role

Will win: Christopher Plummer (Beginners) – playing the 75 year old widow who comes out as gay, teaching his son (Ewan McGregor) a thing or two about taking life by the horns.

Should win: Christopher Plummer

Actress in a Supporting Role

Octavia Spencer (The Help) is the critical and audience favourite for this gong, and took home the Globe for her part in the story of Negro servants in the 1950s finding a voice with which to express unhappiness at how they are treated by their white mistresses.  Spencer is indeed terrific, but I’d love to see Jessica Chastain win (also from The Help) – partly in recognition of her other excellent work this year (The Tree of Life and The Debt) – although of course the Oscars don’t work that way.

Foreign Language Film

Iran’s A Separation will and should win.  A seemingly simple family drama revolving around a couple’s differing priorities – care of a sick parents versus moving abroad – it turns into a morally complex, intense and exhilarating “whodunnit”, topping critics’ polls worldwide and gluing audiences in their seats.

Original Screenplay

Will win: Midnight in Paris (makes up for Woody Allen not winning Best Director)

And yes, it should.  Screenwriter Gil holidays in Paris with his fiancée, where he indulges his fantasies of a Golden Age, thanks to a magical invitation back in time to hobnob with Hemingway, Stein and Picasso.

Adapted Screenplay

The Descendants will probably win, to make up for Alexander Payne not winning Best Director.

This would be a worthy win, but when you consider how magnificently Tinker Tailor’s screenplay condensed a detailed, complex plot into just over two hours, the latter ought to beat it hands down.

Animated Feature

What a lousy shortlist. Perhaps Rango (Johnny Depp’s smart-talking, cowboy chameleon) to win?  Deserving would have been the inexplicably overlooked The Adventures of Tintin, which didn’t even get a nomination.

Original Score

The Artist’s charming soundtrack was critical given the absence of dialogue or sound design.  However, Tinker Tailor’s score is simply superb.

Original Song

Admittedly only two shortlisted, but it’s no contest – Bret McKenzie’s “Man or Muppet” from the newly revamped The Muppets Movie is bound to have us all proud.


Soon there won’t be anything left to see…

For various reasons, I’ve been sitting in the dark, air-conditioned wonder of various cinemas a lot over the last three weeks.  Reviews (or criticisms, depending on my time and inclination) are forthcoming for the following:

  • Soundtrack for a Revolution
  • The Brothers Bloom
  • Alice in Wonderland
  • Nowhere Boy
  • Boy
  • Crazy Heart
  • This Way of Life
  • The Boys are Back
  • Green Zone
  • The Last Song (hey, I saw it for free…)

IN BRIEF – Reviews of films past:


Actually, despite not-exactly-rave reviews, I thought this was spectacular.  Based loosely on Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ (if you studied that at Uni, as I did), Nine is a musical set in 1960s Roma, where Guido Contini (played wonderfully, as ever, by Daniel Day-Lewis) is a famous movie director whose film is about to start shooting – only he doesn’t yet know what it’s about.  Plagued by writer’s block and the various women in his life (played by Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Marion Cotillard, Sophia Loren, Kate Hudson and Judi Dench), this is a glorious evocation of a time when film-making was glamorous, cars were fast, and women were ridiculously beautiful.  I didn’t know any of the songs beforehand, but came out singing, utterly exhilarated.  Special mention goes to Fergie for her signature tune “Be Italian”.  The film certainly made me wish I was…

Up In The Air

This isn’t just about George Clooney (he’s far too old for me, anyway).  Up In The Air is rightly receiving Golden Globes and Oscar nods as a brilliantly funny, perceptive take on corporate culture, the recession, and relationships.  Ryan Bingham (Clooney) flies around the USA firing people on behalf of their cowardly bosses.  He loves the isolation his life affords him, clocking up millions of air miles, 340+ days a year.  When two women enter his life and threaten his world – one, a female version of his commitment phobic self, the other a bright young exec who proposes firing people over Skype – sparks fly and lessons are (of course) learnt – but not quite as you’d think.

It’s Complicated…

With an engaging, truthful performance from Meryl Streep as a 50-something divorcee who has an affair with her ex-husband (played with hilarity and seemingly no shame by Alec Baldwin), this film is well-written and completely entertaining.  Steve Martin makes a welcome return to our screens playing a down-to-earth architect who gives Streep pause for thought as she embarks on “one of the craziest things I’ve ever done”, as she negotiates the loss of her grown-up children from the nest, and tries to establish the next phase of her life.  Lots of laughs, plenty of home-truths, and not saccharine at all.


Some people loved it (I know this from lengthy discussions in the tearoom at work).  Some people may still be unsure as to whether they need to see the most technologically advanced film in history.  If you’re looking for a clever narrative, good acting and a witty script, then perhaps don’t bother.  But there is no denying this is history in the making, and James Cameron has produced something very special indeed (for which he maybe deserved the Best Director Oscar in my eyes, but not Best Picture).  Avatar truly is amazing to watch, and to get lost in for 2+ hours.  See it 3D (Imax if you can handle it, but normal screen is fine too) and take it as pure entertainment.  Either that, or see the highest-grossing film of all time simply because you don’t want to be left out.


This film didn’t screen in many cinemas in my town, but it’s absolutely worth a look (even on DVD).  Paul Bettany and real-life wife Jennifer Cononlley play Charles & Emma Darwin – he of The Origin of Species masterpiece that shaped our understanding of the world in which we live.  This is a subtle film, beautifully acted and told, covering Darwin’s ambivalence about his discoveries and the church’s concern about what he was going to write.  The relationship between Darwin and his wife is somewhat inspirational, but it is his love for eldest daughter Alice that provides the backbone for the story.

Sherlock Holmes

Robert Downey Jr pulls off an exhilarating rendition of the famous detective, upping his physical prowess in impressively choreographed boxing matches, and nailing the witty dialogue, in what should be considered director Guy Ritchie’s return to form (he of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, rather than he “Mrs Madonna”).  Jude Law plays the put-upon Dr Watson, and together our heroes provide a most entertaining spectacle of how to catch an occultist murderer in olden-days London.  This is a jolly romp, not entirely faithful to the Basil Rathbone films of yore, but beautifully shot, lit and full of action.

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