Dailies—February/March 2009

FILM, Home Video, In Cinemas
Our writers recap the best and rest in film and DVD. In this edition: The Dark Knight, Snow Angels, 30 Rock—Seasons 1 & 2, Extras—The Special, Persepolis, Cassandra’s Dream. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Damily Guy—Season 7 (DVD); Frost/Nixon, Dean Spanley, Valkyrie, Empties (Film).

The Dark Knight (Warner Bros, $44.95): The infallible Christopher Nolan turned in the most hyped movie of 2008, complete with a raging profit and talk of a posthumous Oscar for its fallen star. Needless to say, Heath Ledger’s passing before The Dark Knight’s release shaped what was already a certified blockbuster into a pervasive, self-marketed behemoth; a film with a life force of its own that, viewed six months and one billion dollars on, perched itself at the height of First World decadence. The economic downturn that has followed suggests another movie of its gross expenditure and sustained box office success is unlikely to prevail within the next year (or two), and despite Nolan’s heartfelt speech at the Golden Globes this month (accepting the best supporting actor award on behalf of Ledger), one can still picture Warner Bros executives licking their lips at the good timing and (mis)fortune of the death. The Dark Knight is haunted by Ledger’s spectre for other reasons though: namely, the Australian’s belligerent performance (regardless of his premature end), so single-minded and unyielding that the film exhales whenever his anarchic Joker is off screen. The sturdy Aaron Eckhart, as the outwardly moralistic, privately conflicted Harvey Dent, is overshadowed as a result, and is by far the more varied and three-dimensional character study, hindered only by a somewhat cartoonish transformation into the vengeful Two-Face, and a compressed storyline that must share an already busy running time (if anything, the film is half-an-hour too short). Eclipsed even further is Christian Bale, reduced to a man in a suit. Already dripping with expense, the DVD’s various featurettes (concisely presented in footage and voiceover, without the needless intercutting of talking heads) confirm just how much money went into the production’s anti-CGI action sequences, shot in the extravagant, cumbersome IMAX format, and with a refreshing insistence on practical special effects. (2-disc special edition; making of featurettes; IMAX sequences; episodes from ‘Gotham Tonight’; stills; conceptual art; trailers).—Tim Wong

Snow Angels (Warner/Icon, $39.95): Fans of The Pineapple Express eager to explore David Gordon Green’s back catalogue will be in for a jarring shock with Snow Angels. Slow, deliberate, and very, very formal, Green’s second most-recent film is compelling, but not overly ambitious or precise. In truth, it’s probably Green’s weakest effort to date. The film, which tells the story of a half dozen townsfolk dogged by imperfect human relationships, lacks the visual panache or the atmosphere of whirling, confused melancholy that elevated George Washington and All The Real Girls, both of which covered similar social ground. Instead, Green relies on the actors to cover a rather formulaic central plot about a missing toddler and a single mother. Kate Beckinsale is surprisingly accomplished in the lead role, although Sam Rockwell is more inconsistent in a challenging role as her troubled ex-husband. The true stars of the film, however, are youngsters Michael Angarano and Olivia Thirbly, portraying a young couple experiencing love for the first time. Their stunted dialogue and awkwardness is natural ground for Green, who infuses their scenes with emotive jumps and cuts, creating a whirling aesthetic buzz missing from the rest of the film. Not that the rest is awful. Green’s delicate hand is a welcome contrast to the current trends in American drama—one only needs to compare Snow Angels to the similarly themed Gone Baby Gone to appreciate his understanding of tempo. There’s plenty of breathing space, and a typically lush setting for the story to unravel. But the adult characters never quite seem to escape the screenwriter’s pen, as they have in the past. That might be because it’s Green’s first adapted story (from Stewart O’Nan’s 1994 novel), but one suspects the looming Hollywood project had more to do with it. (No special features.)—Simon Wood

30 Rock—Seasons 1 & 2 (Universal, $39.95 each): It’s no surprise 30 Rock scooped the Golden Globes trifecta (best TV comedy and actors). Tina Fey’s turn as Sarah “I can see Russia from my house” Palin was the funniest performance of the year; while Alec Baldwin’s imitation of Winkin’ Starbursts Sarah was also inspired. In 30 Rock, riffing on Saturday Night Live, Fey consistently amuses as Liz Lemon, head writer. The comic highlight, though, is Baldwin as Jack Donaghy, NBC’s Republican corporate executive. His many quotable Season One one-liners include: “Sure, I gotcha. New York, third-wave feminist, college-educated, single and pretending to be happy about it, over-scheduled, undersexed, you buy any magazine that says “healthy body image” on the cover, and every two years you take up knitting for a week.” Opening episode of Season Two, Seinfeld-Vision, is an absolute pearler. Jack’s New Year’s resolution is to digitally include Jerry in all of NBC’s current programming, like MILF Island and America’s Next Top Pirate. Jerry shows up looking like his dentist has told him he’ll have to use Kramer’s toothbrush for the rest of his life. In Subway Hero, Jack’s attempt to find hip, youthful Republican celebrities for a big McCain fundraiser flounder when only 40s TV star Bucky Bright puts his hand up. The Collection, where Jack hires a private detective (Steve Buscemi) to dig up the dirt on him and Somebody to Love, where Jack hooks up unawares with a liberal Democrat C.C. (Edie Falco), also score. My favourite is Greenzo, where as part of GE greenwashing, Jack develops a silly Green Mascot for NBC, Greenzo (David Schwimmer). (Season 2: 15 episodes; audio commentaries; deleted scenes; Cooter table read; 30 Rock Live; Tina Hosts SNL; An Evening with 30 Rock.)

Extras—The Special (Roadshow/BBC, $29.95): After Ghost Town, heading down the yellow brick road to Andy’s shitcom When the Whistle Blows, it was good watching Rick Gervais on form with Extras—The Special. Andy now has fame, but not respect, and it’s eating his soul. Gervais’s idiosyncratic blend of hilarious/painful is same as it ever was. Could someone really be as moronic as the kind-hearted Maggie? In any case, the scene where she pretends to be Andy’s PA while The Guardian interviews him is dangerously funny. Other highlights include Darren and Barry selling cellphones, Maggie downsizing flats and Andy’s mad as hell moment on Celebrity Big Brother. I found Steve Merchant and Gervais’s aboulia-addled commentary dippy; it’s better just to watch the work, the discourse detracts.

Persepolis (Roadshow, $29.95) conveys Iran through one appealing girl’s experience. Like a Jafar Panahi film, it’s critical of the destructive theocrats, but conveys the country’s inspiring progressive element. The delicate animation is refreshingly whimsical and appealing in contrast to steroid-pumped Shrek on 11 excess. Cassandra’s Dream (Roadshow, $29.95): Finishing his exceptional Crimes and Misdemeanours/Match Point trio with this humourless flourish, The Woodman riffs plangently on crime and punishment. Could be his darkest film. Along with Vicky Christy Barcelona shows the master still has it. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (Hopscotch/RS, $29.95): Another senior director, Sidney Lumet, leaves the young pups in the dust probing crime’s personal tragedy. Fiercely moral, inventively constructed; forceful, while allowing elegiac space. Philip Seymour Hoffman does it again. Family Guy—Season 7 (Roadshow, $59.95): Y’all know if it’s your sort of thing by now. Occassionally stale or over-the-top, but sometimes very funny.—Alexander Bisley

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Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard, 2008): This marginally above-average Ron Howard movie, adapted from the Peter Morgan stageplay, delivers a swift and engaging account of fallen US President Nixon’s first interview post-resignation, post-Watergate—a belated public ‘trial’, as it were, following his contentious pardon and balmy retirement into obscurity. Morgan, with a freakish track record of scripting Oscar-winning performances (Helen Mirren as The Queen, Forest Whittaker as The Last King of Scotland), writes for a vintage Frank Langella; the actor rendering Dick as a grizzly, cantankerous beached whale, surpassing Anthony Hopkins’s Nixon as a full embodiment of the former President’s senility and odiousness (he also nails the baritone grunt). While Michael Sheen is an able foil, convincing as the besieged broadcaster of flimsy repute, the absurd casting of supporting roles draws far too much attention: Matthew McFadyen and Sam Rockwell (as David Frost’s production team) are bland and irritating respectively; Kevin Bacon plays Kevin Bacon, to similar effect. Most alarming of all though is the film’s lack of political guts—Goodnight and Good Luck it is not—in which its potential to frame the pre-Obama climate of failure and mistrust is meekly surrendered in favour of a simplistic (albeit riveting) dramatisation, pummeled into the shape of a silly boxing analogy. Howard, who has already made Cinderella Man, stages the Frost/Nixon bout as a series of jabs, low blows, and an eventual knockout punch of underdog sporting cliché. Langella superbly conveys the moment of capitulation, only for the film to slip back into the protocol of sportsmanship and fair play. Rockwell’s character, the vitriolic researcher behind Frost’s programs, sums it up best when, in a moment of irate loathing for the 37th President, insists he’ll never shake Nixon’s hand, only to yield when introduced in person. Frost/Nixon, a film ostensibly of current and historical importance, lacks the conviction to drive this significance home.—Tim Wong

Dean Spanley (Toa Fraser, 2008): Toa Fraser (and the NZ Film Commission) follows up debut No. 2 with old-school English Dean Spanley. Set in the Edwardian period, Dean Spanley is an agreeable wee film about the softening of Old Fisk, a cantankerously resolute Olde Tory. The great Peter O’Toole plays the old boy, relishing lines like “Giving women the vote, it’s like giving fowl a gun” and peppering his conversation with “Poppycock” and other concise putdowns. Over an exclusive Hungarian drop, Young Fisk (Jeremy Northam) comes to believe that Dean Spanley (Sam Neill) is a reincarnated dog. Young Fisk brings his procurer (Bryan Brown) in on the “séances” and finally Old Fisk joins in, too. The conversation with Spanley brings the grumpy bugger a touching epiphany I can’t disclose here. After Australia, which hoovered up musty clichés into a dysfunctional farrago that allowed characters the charisma of a boiled yam, it’s pleasing to see Brown enjoy himself as a Colonial wheeler-dealer. O’Toole’s late autumnal work is memorable, though not quite reason enough to see Dean Spanley on the big screen.—Alexander Bisley

Valkyrie (Brian Singer, 2008) begins in the Tunisian desert with General Von Stauffenberg making notes in his diary about how unhappy he is with his Fürher. He then gets wounded in an attack by the Allies. Cut to Berlin where a bunch of civilians and military resistors conspire against Hitler. Claus Von Sauffenberg was a member of an old, aristocratic German family with a history of military service and high education. He was part of a coup that plotted to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944. It entailed changing Operation Valkyrie, the national emergency plan Hitler himself had established in case he gets killed. The name Valkyrie inspired by Wilhelm Richard Wagner’s composition ‘Die Walküre’. The world knows how Hitler died, so the end of this coup attempt is obvious. Perhaps von Stauffenberg’s tale is not so well-known (or was not well-known) before this film. The screenplay is well-written, the plot unfolds like a thriller and the treatment is like that too; dark and old-world looking. The visuals are beautiful and the film draws you in. Especially the second half, right up to the end. Valkyrie was filmed on various locations in Germany, with money from the Germans. It is bound to look authentic. And Yet. What could have been a great setting to examine the complexities of politics, nationalism, personality clashes, concepts of dictatorship, insidious palpable fear, and why seemingly sensible people gave in to Hitler, is totally wasted. It is an exercise in telling a story that hints at, but does not explore human dynamics. Why did the supposedly sane resistors agree to support Hitler in the first place? Did they really not like his treatment of the Jews or did they want to desert a sinking ship because the war was not going the way they thought it would? Surely it was not as simple as it seems in the film? Tom Cruise is merely a big name. He is completely drowned in the midst of actors like Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Thomas Kretschman, and Christian Berkel. He drags the film down because you either hate him, or wonder what he is doing there. The presence of Hollywood has disallowed the depth that could have been.—Sapna Samant

Empties (Brian Singer, 2008): It may surprise you to know that the Czech Republic has had a long, enduring love affair with cinema. Interestingly, it was not until recently that the Central European nation has gained recognition through its most successful film to date—Jan Sverák’s Empties. This so-called ‘dramedy’ is an entertaining and quirky look at love, reconciliation and happiness. The film follows Josef Tkaloun (Zdenek Sverák), a retired teacher, in his search for proof that old age is not devoid of value, meaning, and happiness. After a brief stint as the oldest bicycle courier in Prague, Josef finds a job in a local supermarket collecting empty bottles for recycling. When not working from his little window in the store and fantasising about women half his age, Josef tries his hand at matchmaking his newly separated daughter with a teacher colleague of his. Through his meddling he also starts on a road to rekindle the romance with his wife. The screenplay, also by lead Zdenek (son of director Sverák), is well written, witty, and switches between moments of drama and comedy seamlessly, while the characters are burdened with realistic problems—a large part of Empties’ charm. The characters and the acting are believable and honest which make each and every one of them likable from the get-go—especially Josef, and there’s also a surprisingly delightful performance from the film’s youngest character and Josef’s grandson, Tomík (Robin Soudek). Wonderfully refreshing, Empties explores life, love, and the value of old age from an interesting and fresh perspective while delivering a few good laughs along the way.—Simon Wong