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Review: Predicament, The White Ribbon & Piranha 3D

By December 21, 2010One Comment

The unhappy bard of Hawera, Ronald Hugh Morrieson, died in the sure and cer­tain know­ledge of his own fail­ure. Only one of his four nov­els had been pub­lished (and only in Australia) and the oth­ers lan­guished in obscur­ity. He wasn’t to know that his Taranaki-gothic vis­ions would prove per­fectly adapt­able to the big screen and that no less a Hollywood legend than John Carradine would appear in the first of them, The Scarecrow in 1982. Came a Hot Friday (1985) fol­lowed to huge box office suc­cess but then the Morrieson curse struck again and, due to the vagar­ies of the inter­na­tion­al movie busi­ness, Pallet on the Floor wouldn’t even make it in to cinemas in New Zealand.

Predicament posterHis oth­er nov­el, “Predicament”, has finally made it to the big screen and, I’m sorry to report, that Morrieson him­self might prefer that it hadn’t. It’s Hawera, 1933. A socially repressed New Zealand small town, pleas­ant and pla­cid on the sur­face but teem­ing with petty crims and sly-groggers under­neath. When gawky teen­ager Cedric Williamson’s moth­er died his fath­er (Tim Finn) suffered a break­down and is silently build­ing a huge wooden tower in his front yard.

Alone and full of unre­quited teen­age yearn­ing, Williamson falls in with a bad crowd – dubi­ous Mervyn Toebeck (Heath Franklin) and mys­ter­i­ous Spook (played with brio by Jemaine Clement) – and between them they cook up a plan to black­mail the town dandy (Chad Mills) who is hav­ing an affair with his father’s pretty new wife (Brooke Williams).

So far, so prom­ising, and tal­en­ted dir­ect­or Jason Stutter uses his ver­sat­ile and mobile cam­era to gen­er­ally good effect. The only prob­lem is what’s hap­pen­ing in front of it. Stutter’s script itself is hard to judge because it’s played so poorly by two of his three leads (and plenty of the sup­port­ing cast, too). Newcomer Hayden Frost (Cedric) looks the part but nev­er approaches plaus­ib­il­ity, Finn’s pres­ence is mostly an odd dis­trac­tion but the biggest crime against cast­ing is Aussie com­ic Heath Franklin in the pivotal role of Toebeck. He gets most of the great lines (many of them lif­ted straight from Morrieson’s gif­ted pen) but has no feel for them what­so­ever, no feel for the English lan­guage at all. He is sup­posed to be cocky and invent­ive but Franklin’s asth­mat­ic breath­ing and all round lack of energy sucks the wind out of every scene he is in. Could we not have found a New Zealander to fuck it up this badly?

It’s not all awful (there’s nice sup­port­ing work by Williams and Hadleigh Walker; the pro­duc­tion design by John Harding is first rate on a tiny budget) but Stutter’s inab­il­ity to judge or dir­ect an act­or is going to hamper his career at this level.

The White Ribbon posterStutter’s rest­less cam­era is very much the style these days, as if the simple pleas­ures of the tri­pod have fallen out of favour. Luckily, Michael Haneke still has one and has used it to great effect on his mas­ter­piece The White Ribbon, show­ing from the one lumin­ous black and white print that has been impor­ted into the coun­try. In it, a series of mys­ter­i­ous incid­ents shock the pop­u­la­tion of a small German vil­lage dur­ing the months lead­ing up to World War One. The old social order seems intact but, under­neath the prim and prop­er façade humanity’s true nature can be found: greedy, fear­ful, sus­pi­cious, venge­ful, superstitious.

It’s about the pres­ence or absence of good and evil in the world, but it’s also a Chekovian fin de siècle story as the old order fails to see all the change occur­ring right in front of its nose.

Beneath Hill 60 posterAt the end of The White Ribbon, the war to end all wars has star­ted and less than two years later a bunch of Australian miners would find them­selves 90 feet under a Belgian hill­side, bury­ing the biggest bomb that any­one had ever seen. The “based on a true story” of these miners is called Beneath Hill 60 and it’s a worth­while addi­tion to the list of films myth­o­lo­gising the Aussie contribution/sacrifice without doing any­thing start­ling. The good look­ing young cast (I call them “NIDA Squad”) acquit them­selves well enough and dir­ect­or Jeremy Sims builds plenty of tension.

Piranha 3D posterThe debate over 3D has been raging recently but I think I can play my trump card now: Piranha 3D is the most fun use of the tech­no­logy I’ve seen in ages. Not even both­er­ing to pre­tend that dimen­sion­al­ity is any­thing oth­er than a sideshow gim­mick helps and dir­ect­or Alexandre Aja piles on gag after gag. From the first sequence (Richard Dreyfuss fish­ing on the lake in his Jaws glasses and bean­ie) you know that irrev­er­ence is the order of the day and a top cast of char­ac­ter act­ors (Ving Rhames, Christopher Lloyd and the too-little-seen Elizabeth Shue) have as much fun as the rest of us. Old-fashioned, naughty, B‑movie exploit­a­tion fun.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 1 September, 2010.

One Comment

  • dfmamea says:

    saw “Predicament” at the NZFF and was under­whelmed. i’m a big fan of Stutter’s “Tongan Ninja” and looked for­ward to what he could do with some dosh in the budget. next time, but. next time.