Criterion Sunday 301: An Angel at My Table (1990)

Janet Frame is one of those iconic New Zealanders (not least because of her bright corona of red hair) who probably isn’t much known outside the country — or wasn’t until this biopic by Jane Campion. It’s a remarkable work that tracks her life via a tripartite structure (taken from the three memoirs Frame wrote): we see her as a young schoolgirl, then as a teenager, and finally played by Kerry Fox as an uncertain adult venturing out into the world after a period of difficulty. By which I mean that she was sectioned into a mental hospital for eight years of her life, for absolutely no medically-sound reason as it later turned out (just that everyone thought she was a bit odd). Campion does her best to find a balance between the darker elements and a sense of poetic license and even joy, and ultimately the film is about Frame finding her place in the world and her poetic voice. It’s all gorgeously shot and mounted, set in rural Otago before Frame later moves to London and Spain. Fox does well to convey Frame’s withdrawn character in an engaging way, and this is one of Campion’s best films.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is the 10 minute The Making of An Angel at My Table (2002) documentary by one of the producers of the feature which gives some behind the scenes context for the making of the film, mostly told by Campion herself, as well as Campion on her festival and press tour, promoting the finished film.
  • There are six short deleted scenes which add a few more little details to the characterisations.
  • There’s a fine stills gallery with some production photos, including the actual Janet Frame with her three actors.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jane Campion; Writer Laura Jones (based on the autobiographies To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table and The Envoy from Mirror City by Janet Frame); Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh; Starring Kerry Fox, Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, Kevin J. Wilson; Length 158 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 12 December 1999 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Tuesday 17 March 2020).

Blackhat (2015)

Critics directed quite a bit of derision towards this new Michael Mann film when it came out last year, and it’s certainly a very odd film in many ways. For a start, most obviously, it’s about computer hacking, a notoriously difficult thing to make visually interesting, though Mann does his best with an opening sequence tracking computer data transfers via swooping CGI shots along lit-up wires and through circuits across the world. More noticeably, he has Chris Hemsworth play our computer-hacking hero Nicholas — perhaps a suspension of disbelief too far for some — who is seen at the start locked up in prison, which can surely be the only excuse for his taut, muscled body. Then on top of this is added a bunch of fairly straightforward action scenes involving running, kicking, jumping, explosions, all the usual stuff, because basically the film quickly moves from the realm of cyber-terrorism to real-world undercover policework, as some FBI handlers are introduced (Viola Davis, most notably) and then Chinese government officials (Leehom Wang as Captain Chen, and Tang Wei as his sister Lien, also an IT specialist, and putative love interest for Nicholas). Setting all this aside — and there’s some slightly patchy pacing on the way as the story develops — it’s actually fascinating for being a mainstream big-budget Hollywood action-thriller which has a genuinely diverse cast. Sure, Bond and Bourne jetted around the world, but they don’t feel as properly international as this film does. My feeling is that opinion will shift over time to regard it rather more positively, as I think it moves the genre in an interesting direction, and there’s rarely so little of interest to most action thrillers.

Blackhat film posterCREDITS
Director Michael Mann; Writers Morgan Davis Foehl and Mann; Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh; Starring Chris Hemsworth, Wei Tang 湯唯, Leehom Wang 王力宏, Viola Davis; Length 133 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 13 February 2016.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

When I wrote about The Paperboy earlier this year, I talked a lot about what for me is the defining quality of a two-star film (at least under my ratings system as it was; now I have a category called “mediocre” but you could also call it a 5/10 or grade it a solid B), and this new film from Ben Stiller hits all those middling marks. There are plenty of ways in which this is not objectively a good movie (if such a critical standpoint can be said to exist), but it’s one I found fascinating in all its strangeness. Unlike The Paperboy, Walter Mitty does seem to be straining after awards credibility — which may explain its pre-Christmas release date — but at its heart it’s every bit as perplexing as the more luridly pulpy Paperboy.

For a start, there’s the fairly vacuous plot: man fears he has wasted his life, seeks to fill it. This may work in the short story format, but over a feature length it comes off as rather obvious. The titular character apparently feels there’s nothing interesting about his life as the film starts, but yet he’s standing on a subway platform in Manhattan, commuting to a job at Life magazine — his work preparing photographs for publication is actually quite fascinating (this isn’t The Office). Life is being downsized by a team led by a one-dimensional bad manager played by Adam Scott (distinguished only by a beard that makes him look like an Ancient Persian king), which swiftly brings him into conflict with Mitty. Star photographer Sean (Penn) has sent an iconic photo for the last print edition’s cover, but Mitty can’t find it and uses this as a pretext to travel the world, something he’s missed doing over the course of his life. Thus does one man seek to ‘find himself’ with all the connotations of that hollow phrase.

Then there’s the way the film presents this story and Mitty’s quest. I don’t deny that the images are at times gorgeous (shot by veteran cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh), but within the film they come across like the advertising that precedes this and so many other movies. Partly that’s the way that the kind of Tourist Board-approved aspirational imagery of untouched wildernesses is blended with that strain of modern music so beloved of advertisers, with all its lushly-produced and multi-instrumented promise of something epiphanic — the Arcade Fire being the key example here. It doesn’t really help that product placement is so front-and-centre: the framing story involves Mitty creating a profile on a prominent internet dating site, while his trip to Iceland involves him coming across a chain pizza restaurant which as far as I can tell doesn’t actually have any outlets in that country.

Maybe this stuff could be chalked up to Mitty’s persistent fantasising, but I doubt it. After all, his character’s key habit in the first third of the film is in imagining different outcomes for events he’s participating in, going off into reveries of heroism until the point that he actually does this for real. Thus, as the film progresses, one could follow a reading that his fantasies have taken on such increasingly epic proportions that he is ultimately controlling the very narrative and mise en scène of the film he’s in. In a sense, that’s true, in so far as the star of the film (playing Mitty) is its director, Ben Stiller. Certainly, none of what Mitty does as the film progresses seems particularly realistic, but the way it comes across is like one of those mood-establishing adverts for something aspirational like a luxury car, or aftershave, or visiting Iceland (pro tip: it’s probably worth visiting Iceland, but not for its American chain pizza restaurants). At one point it even turns into a pastiche of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (in which Stiller starred) for a few moments, the ultimate filmic index of stylised unreality.

The effect of all of this is to render the film fascinating to me, as if it were instead a film dramatising the creative compromises that are required to make a major Hollywood motion picture. It doesn’t hurt that the way the narrative progresses is so discursive, like a shaggy dog story or, perhaps more apropos, like a series of skits for Saturday Night Live. Mitty’s escapist fantasies, for example, could easily be stand-alone YouTube clips, and at their funniest (the hilarious parody of Benjamin Button) deserve success in this format. But elsewhere the film just feels unfocused. One moment, Mitty is in New York trying to figure out how to make the object of his affections — Cheryl, a temp played by the winning Kristen Wiig (herself an alum of SNL) — pay him some attention, and the next he’s dropping from a helicopter onto a fishing trawler, or skateboarding down the lower reaches of an active Icelandic volcano, or playing kickball in the Himalayas. And when he finally meets photographer Sean before returning to his life in the States, the film just seems to grind to a halt to take in an (admittedly enjoyable) conversation with Patton Oswalt at LAX.

That discursiveness — the film’s openness to just taking in whatever it likes the look of or thinks is funny, however obliquely it may relate to the advancement of the ostensible plot — is both the weakest element of the film and also what I found most strangely satisfying. Though I also liked all the cast members, from Ben Stiller’s salaryman (whose buttoned-down, almost straight edge, style makes him oddly believable in the subplot wherein he is a former skatepunk) to the lovely Kristen Wiig and the spiky Shirley MacLaine as Mitty’s mother. Plus there is a surprisingly generous number of laugh-out-loud moments.

I’ve tried with this review to make a case for what I liked about the film, but I’ll probably never convince either you or myself that it’s a great film or even worth watching a second time. But I enjoyed my trip with Stiller and co. that first time even if I’ll probably end up sticking with my uneventful office job.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty film posterCREDITS
Director Ben Stiller; Writer Sean Conrad (based on the short story by James Thurber); Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh; Starring Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Sean Penn; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Monday 25 November 2013.

Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)

By this point it’s well enough known that the original novel on which this film is based took its inspiration from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (though not so much by me, who had to be apprised of this fact by my wife upon expressing surprise at the similarity in both name and casting between Colin Firth here and in the BBC TV adaption of said Austen novel some years earlier). Bridget Jones is a nice middle-class girl who lives in an attractive area (in this case a scrubbed-up London, above a pub in Borough Market, rather than the countryside) with a group of dedicated single friends (rather than sisters), who dallies with chaps of much greater income.

In this sense, some of the class-conscious social-climbing drama is retained from the Austen original, while those awkward rituals of social mixing set to elaborate dances are here replaced by society soirées and press launches. It is all very nicely transposed to a modern setting, and Elizabeth Bennet/Bridget Jones (played by Renée Zellweger) now has a largely thankless job in a publishing company, which suits the film’s impression of the vapidity of the media.

I suppose the problem for me is in creating a modern story of a woman in search of a man, when there is no corresponding sense that without one her family will be in penury. I suppose it’s a commentary on the way that while women’s rights and options in life have moved on in two hundred years, the messages provided by the media have changed little, though if so it’s not always very clear. She has a professional job at which she is apparently competent, though the film is more interested in those times when she makes a fool of herself (for obvious comic reasons). She does not need either her boss Daniel (Hugh Grant) or the stand-offish Mr Darcy (Colin Firth) and yet it is on these men she obsesses, and whose interest in her define her life and her story.

Of course, the story is presented as her diary, so it is very much one for which she is setting the narrative tone. Many moments are played as if scenes from big Hollywood films, with Bridget’s requisite triumphs and humiliations shot in a non-naturalistic style (it’s a precarious line separating it from Ally McBeal, a TV show I detested but which pursued a similar aesthetic, though I think the film is successful). So this is her story, and yet even if it’s one in which she seems to be beholden to all the traps of women’s magazines (a careful detailing of her diet, smoking habit, and ploys to attract men), she still seems to revel in a kind of unrestrained physicality. Zellweger looks healthy and charming in the role of Bridget despite other characters’ barbs about her being ‘fat’, not to mention her unapologetic nicotine addiction.

Whatever my reservations about the presentation of Jones’s character, it’s a likeable and charming film thanks primarily to the three leads, who all have excellent screen charisma. It certainly feels like pleasant watching for a drowsy afternoon while on holiday, which is where I saw it.


CREDITS
Director Sharon Maguire; Writers Andrew Davies and Richard Curtis (based on the novel by Helen Fielding); Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh; Starring Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 4 August 2001 (and on TV at holiday apartment, Rovinj, Saturday 1 June 2013).