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Review: Black Book, The Kingdom, The Nanny Diaries and Half Nelson

Black Book posterPaul Verhoeven is one of those directors that has no hand-brake, regardless of the subject matter. For ice-pick wielding murderers (Basic Instinct) or giant alien bugs (Starship Troopers) this damn-the-torpedos attitude is perfect; when we’re talking about Dutch jews being betrayed by corrupt members of the resistance in WWII — not so much.

Black Book is Verhoeven’s first film in seven years, and his first film back home in Holland since Flesh + Blood back in 1985. Carice van Houten plays Rachel Stein, a nightclub singer before the war, now on the run from the Nazis. When her family is murdered on the brink of escape she dyes her hair blonde and joins the resistance, going undercover and then falling in love with the good German played by Sebastian Koch from The Lives of Others (you know he’s going to be a good German because he collects stamps and doesn’t have a scar on his cheek).

Verhoeven piles it on at every opportunity, making Black Book an old-fashioned entertaining melodrama when a different approach might have given us something really meaningful.

The Kingdom posterDon’t miss the beginning of The Kingdom as the beautifully graphic-designed opening titles contain as succinct a geo-political history of the Middle East as one could wish for in three minutes. While it lays out the background nicely, it also sets up the key message of the film: American involvement in the region is all about oil and that involvement means some culpability for the insecurity of the region and the rest of the world.

One of the secure western compounds in Riyadh has been targeted by terrorists. Hundreds are dead and the FBI sends in an elite investigative team (a sort of “CSI: Saudi”) led by Jamie Foxx but they have only five days to catch the ratbags and nobody from either government really wants them there. The Kingdom is considerably more culturally and politically sensitive than any $100m action movie has any right to be and I enjoyed it a lot.

The Nanny Diaries posterThe Nanny Diaries follows in the footsteps of last year’s hit The Devil Wears Prada, a not-terribly-subtle satire of the Manhattan upper class as seen by an ordinary girl outsider. This year’s model is Scarlet Johansson as Annie Braddock an anthropology graduate from New Jersey who gets a job as a Nanny to rich and shallow Mrs X (Laura Linney). Love interest is provided by the smarmy Chris Evans from Fantastic Four and the best friend is the singer Alicia Keys who should be grateful she has a day job.

The simple lesson on offer is that lack of love as a child will make you unhappy and lack of love as an adult will turn you in to a cruel, selfish and heartless bitch but both problems are easily turned around by a little honesty from a complete stranger. There, I’ve saved you fifteen bucks.

Half Nelson posterA very welcome return from the Festival is Half Nelson, a beautifully acted character study about a gifted school teacher (Ryan Gosling) with a drug problem and the unlikely friendship he forms with one of his students, played by newcomer Shareeka Epps. They are both lonely and misunderstood and for a short while they make a connection (even if it is mostly unspoken).

Of all the young leading men around at the moment (many of whom also seem to be named Ryan) Gosling is the real deal. It’s no accident that Peter Jackson has cast him as the father in The Lovely Bones despite being about ten years too young for the role. On this evidence he’ll be fine.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 10 October, 2007.

Full disclosure: Half Nelson is distributed in New Zealand by Palace Films who are mates.

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