By Roderick Heath
Filmgoing ’round my way can be a frustrating experience. Blockbusters will arrive instantaneously, sometimes before they hit the U.S., like Transformers, and the films you actually want to see don’t turn up for six months, if ever. I also confess to being a bit of a cinema blockbuster whore: why should I pay AU$14.50 to see Paul Giamatti’s nostril hair, when I can do that in the comfort of my own home and Megan Fox’s navel awaits on an IMAX screen? I was drawn out like the good little drone I am to see Transformers, Spider-Man 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, and Live Free or Die Hard (witlessly retitled outside the States as Die Hard 4.0. I, personally, am waiting for “Die Hard 7⅜.”)
This was, of course, the year of the threequel. And the fourquel. And the fivequel. Most of these flicks demanded—and rewarded—low expectations. The tongue-in-cheek qualities of Rise of the Silver Surfer and Spider-Man 3 became particularly pleasing in such a mood. Raimi’s odd beast of a conclusion to the Spidey Trilogy pleased me for the same reason it dismayed hordes of fanboys for being as much romantic comedy and musical as a tale of an heroic flying whatsit battling gooey black whojars and big sandy thingimys that oddly resemble the mechanic dude from Wings.
Of course you can go too far in applying comedy to action, as At World’s End did in its first two-thirds, before settling down for an unexpectedly impressive finale. This left only one mystery for me and my female friends: how could Keira could pass up Johnny Depp in eyeliner for that other skinny knob, even if he has managed to grow a bad teenage beard? Thank god for Bruce Willis. Until Harrison Ford gets back into the swing of things in “Indiana Jones and the Cure for Arthritis” next year, he’s the only guy around to show us what a proper ass-kicking looks like. Ford will be joined by Shia LeBeouf, who starred this year in a fair approximation of a John Cusack comedy from the ’80s somehow slipped in between a bunch of giant robots brawling in Transformers. Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, in its odd way, seemed to make comment on audience tastes these days by alternating a child’s escape into mythic quest and fantasy whilst, around her, war and torture mangle the landscape.
Nonetheless, when I haven’t blown my extra cash on some magic beans, and with a decent night’s sleep behind me, a serious movie will tempt me into a theatre. Much of last year’s Oscar bait fell seriously flat with me.Volver had me wondering if my beloved Pedro Almodovar had gone senile; Notes on a Scandal drove me from the theatre with its cruel and clumsy satire; Stephen Frears’ The Queen provided the most wimpy tabloid expose of repressed Royals ever; Deepa Mehta’s Water promised a harsh study of sexual discrimination in Gandhi-era India and delivered a wading pond inhabited by fat ladyboy villains, lustrous-haired oppressed maidens, and hunky radical doctors. Borat established that Sacha Baron Cohen is a great comic writer and actor, and that comedy written is 10 million times funnier than comedy blundered upon whilst insulting everyday people not in on the joke.
I was briefly bewildered when Mr. Fantastic suddenly lost his super stretching powers, went back in time, and started trying to abolish slavery in Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace. Apted’s film recreated, remarkably intact, the virtues of a ’30s biopic, injecting sober, intelligent, dramatically solid history with a bit of sex—no matter that William Wilberforce was two feet shorter than strapping Welsh hunk Ioan Gruffud, and his wife probably did not have as delicious a rack as Romola Garai. That’s showbiz, folks. Another Regency biopic—it was a happening time—Becoming Jane, promised a bucolic afternoon in Austenland, and presented a similar quandary: if Jane Austen looked like Anne Hathaway, why did she have so much trouble getting a guy? Despite the filmmakers’ strained efforts to make the scribe’s young womanhood resemble her own fiction, they ultimately had the honesty to show that her life lived more like how Thomas Hardy would have written it—a sad, greying tale of a woman who finds greatness by losing happiness. Hathaway gave it her best, but, finally, the film was worth watching for a pitch-perfect performance by the great Helen McCrory, whose short appearance as Mrs. Radcliffe told a dire truth.
At least Marion Cotillard got down and dirty in playing Edith Piaf, burying her smoky-eyed beauty under enough latex to make a dozen outfits for Rihanna, in Olivier Dahan’s La Vie en Rose, which, as a film, was akin to listening to that kid in the schoolyard who just couldn’t tell a story for anything: “Yeah and then she and the American guy got in a car crash, but did I remember to tell you she like had a baby like way earlier, and gave it up? But what’s really important is the interview she gave on the beach to this chick who had really cute knees!” History was further ransacked for heroes in 300, Zack Snyder’s gloriously brainless homoerotic hootenanny. No other film of the year so sharply showed the division of old Hollywood from new for we fans of Rudolph Mate’s The 300 Spartans (1962), which, cheesy, stodgy, and badly acted, nonetheless had naturalistic intensity and a sense of historical accuracy. 300 was, instead, cheesy, stodgy, badly acted, and filled with digital spears rather than cardboard ones. Steve Reeves lives on in spirit.
Leave accuracy and naturalism these days for art films with really long titles, like Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which kept the guy-lust to a suggestive bathtub scene. Featuring the best male performances I’ve seen this year and uncommon rigour of style and intelligence, Assassination was shot down at the B.O. Corral, and too many darned fer’ners liked it for the Foreign Press Association to nominate it for a Golden Globe. The only film produced by and starring one of Ocean’s 13 they had time for was Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, a sombre and stately thriller whose artistry and pinko cred helped disguise that it was a paint-by-numbers thriller. Star George Clooney was at his best, whilst he was at his most listless and disinterested in Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German, a stilted pastiche featuring Cate Blanchett, swiftly becoming ubiquitous and insufferable both on screen and off.
David Fincher came close to making a real movie with the often compelling, often ferocious Zodiac, which, like Michael Clayton, did its best to live up to the cool, methodical class of ’70s thrillers like All The President’s Men, but couldn’t replicate the airy, faintly desperate urban nihilism of those works. Whilst justifiably disparaging Dirty Harry, Fincher could not, for instance, come close to the sonorous noir poetry of the scene in which Harry watches a girl’s body disinterred from Golden Gate Park in the grey light of dawn. Many praised the film for refusing a pat ending with the mystery solved, but Fincher’s style was too slick, as he dispersed his own cred by suggesting a definite suspect, and by giving us a cheap, discursive horror movie scene where paranoid hero Jake Gyllenhaal freaks out in a basement only footsteps from upstairs.
The Greatest TV Show Ever became a good, if not mighty, cinema experience with The Simpsons Movie, which tipped a hat to most of the show’s pleasures and clichés but, ironically, failed to live up to the best episodes, which always made a virtue of compression. Still, in a year of action blockbusters, it proved the most intelligent, emotional, and believable of the lot. Meanwhile, Hugh Grant’s slow career transformation into Troy McClure continued with his leathery charm displayed to full effect in Music & Lyrics, a harmlessly entertaining rom-com that provided some snappy pop pastiche.
And there’s so many more of this year’s statue chasers to come. I hear There Will Be Blood, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as another hirsute villain, was originally titled Gangs of New York 2: The Moustache Strikes Back. Will Atonement prove Joe Wright an heir to the mantle of David Lean or earn him a place in the Merchant/Ivory Museum of Offensively Dull Objects d’Art? Will No Country for Old Men finally make William Butler Yeats box office gold? Will Sweeney Todd prove to be that rarest of entities, a musical straight guys can watch?
I can’t wait to find out.