16 Apr 2015

At The Movies: The Longest Ride, Woman in Gold, Samba

From At The Movies, 7:30 pm on 16 April 2015

Woman in Gold screen shot
A still from Woman in Gold by The Weinstein Company.

The Longest Ride is a Nicholas Sparks romance – enough said.
Woman in Gold is a famous painting, stolen from Helen Mirren by the Nazis,
And Samba features a burnt-out businesswoman and a hopeful refugee.

The big picture with Simon Morris

The come-back of the female-friendly film

Last week the New Zealand Film Commission announced a scholarship to encourage more women into major creative roles in the industry. It’s certainly a pretty good time to address the issue. Last year was the worst one for women directors, writers and women-oriented stories for ages.

Six years after Kathryn Bigelow chipped at the glass ceiling by winning Best Director at the Oscars, this year not one woman was even nominated for directing or writing.

Regardless of rights or wrongs, Hollywood studios and commentators agreed that it wasn’t a particularly good look to ignore half the population like this. And this year, the pendulum seems to have swung back considerably. There’s been a wave of women-targeted movies this year, spearheaded by warrior princess Jennifer Lawrence in the latest Hunger Games film, Cinderella and InsurgentStill Alice, Wild and Jupiter Ascending - not to mention children’s fare like Annie, Tinkerbell and Home.

When you consider that one of the year’s biggest hits was an exclusively woman’s story, from a book by a woman and directed by an English, art-house, woman film-maker, clearly things are heading in - if not a good, then certainly a fairer direction. But the fact that 50 shades of grey wasn’t particularly worthy is, frankly, irrelevant. When did a man last apologise for a crappy hit?

It doesn’t matter whether so-called “women’s pictures” are any good or not – though many of them are. What matters is they’re finally being made again, with a lot more on the horizon.

The Longest Ride, starring Scott Eastwood, Britt Robertson and Alan Alda.

The story of The Longest Ride can be summed up in that old Hollywood formula – “the Cowboy and the Lady”.  

Sophia is a beautiful student whose life is devoted to art and a career in a New York gallery.   One day, her best friend persuades her to come to a local rodeo, where she sees Luke. Luke is equally beautiful and decent, and his life is devoted to riding bulls for eight seconds at a time.  

He locks eyes with Sophia across a crowded rodeo and is smitten. He asks her out. Sophia has doubts, and shares them with her friend. Sophia and Luke do go out on a date and it’s literally the most idyllic first date that anyone’s had since the last Nicholas Sparks movie.

But then on the way home, Sophia and Luke see a car that’s driven off the road into a tree. The driver is a lovely old man, Ira, played by lovely old Alan Alda, who desperately urges the kids to rescue a Mysterious Box. A Mysterious Box full of letters. Wildly romantic love-letters.

And so – like the Sparks film that, unfortunately, didn’t end all Sparks films, The Notebook – we alternate between the wafer-thin story of star-crossed lovers Sophia and Luke, and an equally flimsy tale, told in letters, of the life-long love between Ira and Ruth…

But, as I say, this is Nicholas Sparks World, and the last thing Sparks’ loyal fans want is any hint of real-life concerns butting in. Have no fear that Love might not Conquer All in The Longest Ride. The fact that life in this film - like that of rodeo-rider Luke - is mostly all bull, won’t in any way detract from the enjoyment of its target audience.

Woman in Gold, starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds

Woman in Gold tells the story of an Austrian emigree, Maria Altmann, played by Dame Helen. Maria employs lawyer Randy Schoenberg – Ryan Reynolds - to help her retrieve a family painting.  Randy’s not interested - until he discovers that the painting of Maria’s Aunt Adele is one of the most famous paintings in the world.

Gustav Klimt’s wildly ornate “Woman in Gold” – much of the surface is actual gold-leaf – was stolen by the Nazis before the war, and has ended up in an art gallery in Vienna. It’s worth tens of millions, but it’s also one of the most famous art works in Austria.

The case is essentially a legal tussle. It’s fuelled by first Maria’s, then Randy’s implacable anger at the original crime, and the refusal of the authorities to admit to – let alone apologise for – what happened to the ‘Woman in Gold’.

But the film of course rests on the two leads. It’s a mark of the talent of Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds that two potentially hard-to-like characters are allowed to breathe. The growing warmth between them takes the edge off what could have been a film about revenge and over a hundred million dollars.  

Justice – particularly justice 60 years after the fact – is an elusive thing, even when the facts are indisputable. But humanity is not, and this film succeeds in capturing the woman beneath the gold.

Samba, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and Omar Sy.

Samba opens on two volunteer workers for a refugee organization going to work. Work is a prison next door to an airport, where people with the dreaded “Order to Leave the Country” notice are detained. People like Somalian dish-washer Samba.

For refugees like Samba - played by Omar Sy - life means not being noticed by the authorities. A simple parking ticket could mean deportation. 

Samba’s case-worker couldn’t be less promising. Alice, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, has very little experience, and she’s only doing it as part of her court-ordered therapy. One thing Alice is warned about is maintaining a professional distance from clients like Samba. Their usual fate is summary deportation. But it’s hard to resist Samba’s good looks and warmth.

The two unlikely friends – the burnt-out businesswoman and the likeable dishwasher – could have been improbable in any other hands. But Omar Sy and Charlotte Gainsbourg’s awkward silences turning into reluctant, fumbling conversations are fascinating, mostly because - like them - we can’t stop looking at them.

When the subject of a film is a cause – particularly a cause as glaring as the mistreatment of people who’ve already been mistreated enough by war, famine and prejudice – it’s the loose ends that make all the difference. The plot of Samba certainly gets to where it needs to go, but it leaves in its wake enough loose ends for you to leave the cinema with the pleasurable feeling of wondering where all the characters go next.

 - Simon Morris 16 April 2015