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Review: There Once Was an Island, Bad Teacher, Cars 2, The Reluctant Infidel and My Afternoons with Margueritte

There Once Was an Island posterWhen I first visited this country back in 1982 we flew across the Pacific Ocean in daylight and from my window seat I got a birds eye view of … not very much. Lots of flat blue uninterrupted sea, not even so much a rusty tramp steamer to break the monotony. No wonder they usually do this leg in the dark, I thought.

Once I got here I understood that there was a lot going on down there on many tiny speckled islands and atolls – and the richness of the Pacific and its relationship to New Zealand was just one of the reasons why I’m still here all these years later – but now the creeping specter of global warming is transforming the Pacific into the pristine environment I thought I saw all those years ago – unsullied by coral, sand, taro or people.

This process is already well under way as Briar March’s astounding documentary There Once was an Island illustrates. In 2006 Ms. March and a tiny crew spent several months on Takuu, a remote atoll overseen by the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG), serviced and supported by a rare and irregular shipping service and short wave radio. Even then the waves were lapping at the edge of peoples’ homes and the ABG offer of a haven among the mainland sugar plantations effectively meant asking 4000 people to say goodbye to their entire way of life.

March and her crew returned two years later with some scientists who could explain the peril (and perhaps offer some protection strategies) but by then it was already too late. High tides were destroying buildings and there wasn’t any higher ground to move to.

There Once was an Island is a vital documentary about a clear and present danger to us all. Seek it out before it disappears from cinema screens like, er, Takuu is disappearing from the planet.

Bad Teacher posterAnd while we are on the lookout for signs of the coming apocalypse, Exhibit B is surely the new Cameron Diaz film Bad Teacher. I was deeply offended by this film. Not by the offence it was intending to cause (juvenile “jokes” about inappropriate behaviour in a middle school) but by the contempt that it showed for its audience and for humanity generally. And it’s a contempt that isn’t even justified by its own superiority. The film is sloppy and self-satisfied, coasting on an audience’s memories of the great Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa and without an original idea of its own. The only conceivable way Bad Teacher could be worse would be if Gerard Butler was in it.

Cars 2 posterYou can count on Pixar to provide some balance to the desperately depressing fare usually on offer but something isn’t quite right with Cars 2. I mean it’s perfect, obviously, but something is missing this time around.

NASCAR champ Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is tempted away from his off-season break in radiator Springs by the offer of special “best of the best” Grand Prix series promoting an alternative biofuel. He takes lovable rube “Tow” Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) along on the trip but his small town ways prove embarrassing and the pair fall out.

Meanwhile, top British spies Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) are on the trail of a gang of international criminals intent on disrupting the big event and when they mistake the gormless tow truck for their American contact Mr. Mater discovers a hero within.

There’s a lot of plot in Cars 2 and the detail has to be seen to be believed – car puns are literally everywhere – but it seems a little too constructed rather than born if that makes any sense. This is the first Pixar film since Ratatouille that hasn’t made me cry and the first since WALL•E that I haven’t immediately wanted to own. It’s still better than 99% of films that will come out this year though and don’t be late as there is a very funny Toy Story short at the beginning.

The Reluctant Infidel posterCapturing something of the spirit of (the genius) Four Lions without any of the brilliant execution, The Reluctant Infidel tells the potentially amusing story of Mahmud (stand-up comic Omid Djalili), a slightly lapsed London Muslim who discovers he is actually adopted and that his birth parents were jews named Shimshimowitz. The timing couldn’t be worse for this revelation as Mahmud’s son Rashid (Amit Nasir) is about to become engaged to the step-daughter of a big time anti-Western mullah and Mahmud’s islamic bona fides need to be 100% pukka.

As I say, it’s a promising premise and there are some good scenes but the final resolution falls terribly flat when we should be sliding off our seats with laughter. An opportunity missed, I fear.

My Afternoons with MargueritteIn My Afternoons with Margueritte the enormous Gérard Depardieu plays against type as a modest little character, suppressed and depressed by a domineering and abusive mother and mates who scorn his lack of education. These are the perils of growing up and staying in a small town where your course is set from childhood. But a chance meeting with little old Margueritte, counting pigeons on a park bench, opens up a chink of literary light for M. Depardieu and he is able to shrug off the expectations of others for a deep and meaningful friendship.

Dripping with sentimentality, My Afternoons with Margueritte will prove satisfying to undemanding audiences, largely due to a light touch in the directing department from Jean Becker (Conversations With My Gardener) and an efficient 82 minute running time.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 29 June, 2011.

Sorry these are being posted so late. A quick check of the Wellington schedules shows that There Once Was an Island, Bad Teacher and The Reluctant Infidel have already departed our screens. One of those didn’t deserve to fail.

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