It’s the school holidays: that time of the year when this reviewer obviously has to atone for the sins of a previous life by sitting through the candy-coated commercialised detritus that we foist on our kids to keep them off the streets.
Firstly, the worst of the lot: Bratz is as toxic as the chinese-made toys that inspired it, a nakedly cynical hymn to consumption, triviality and shallowness. To be avoided at all costs.
Like a cross between a bloodthirsty B‑movie and something off the National Geographic channel, New Zealand feature The Tattooist struggles to marry the chills and thrills of a stylish low-budget horror film, with a sensitive introduction to Samoan culture, but comes very close to pulling it off.
Jake Sawyer (Jason Behr) is a troubled American tattoo artist, travelling the world ripping-off traditional designs. He ends up in Auckland with a stolen tattooing tool which has unleashed an evil spirit. Is it punishing Jake for his dishonesty or is there something else going on?
Not all of it works, of course — detailed plot exposition is very tricky to pull off during a fist-fight — but, for the most part, I enjoyed it.
Talking of B‑movies, Sandra Bullock’s new thriller Premonition deserves a place somewhere further down the alphabet. Sandy plays a self-absorbed housewife whose husband dies in a car accident. She wakes up the following day to find that it isn’t the following day at all, but three days prior and husband Julian McMahon is still alive. Believing that she has just had a bad dream, she wakes up the following morning to find that it is now the day of the funeral and one of her daughters has terrible recent scars on her face.
This could all be promising mystery material if it wasn’t for the clunky and obvious way the clues are laid out which makes it seem like The Sixth Sense remade for Sesame Street. But even that wouldn’t be too disastrous it wasn’t for an ending that is so breathtakingly inane that this reviewer found himself hating the film for that element alone. Premonition will end up getting a decent life on video but I can’t help thinking that it will disappoint everyone who rents it.
In Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress, a cast full of well-known television faces is gathered together in a Southern fable about living life to the full, or some rubbish like that. Keri Russell (“Felicity”) plays pie-witch Jenna Hunterson, trapped in a marriage to boorish Jeremy Sisto (“Six Feet Under”) and a dead-end job in Joe’s Pie Shack (owned by “Matlock” himself, Andy Griffith). Her only escape is her talent for pies and, possibly, handsome Dr Pomatter (Nathan Fillion from “Firefly”). As inoffensive as vapour and about as substantial.
If ever a documentary needed the help of Michael Moore it is A Crude Awakening, a deeply depressing examination of the world’s dependence on oil (total), the likelihood of it running out this century (high) and what we can do about it (not much). It’s a hugely important subject but the presentation is as dry as dust which will prevent the message from getting very far. Besides, the inescapable conclusion is that an oil-free society will require a reduction in the world’s population by around 4.5 billion people meaning unimaginable misery for those left behind, and who wants to hear that?
Meanwhile, the vital and engaging Date Palm Film Festival gets a fifth run out at the Paramount. One great example: Fireworks Wednesday is a first-rate drama about a young girl in Teheran, about to be married, who goes to work as a maid for a middle-class family and discovers that the grown-up world of marriage has many surprises in store.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 5 September 2007.
Full disclosure: Screenwriters of The Tattooist, Jonathan King and Matthew Grainger, were both judges for the Wellington 48 Hour Film Competition this year; I have been an unpaid consultant on the Date Palm Film Festival since the beginning, though never involved with programming.
Notes on screening conditions: The Tattooist was an early Thursday morning commercial screening at Readings and I did miss the first ten minutes due to confusion on my part over start times; Premonition was at the same venue about an hour and a half later; Waitress was at the Penthouse on Monday evening (staff screening); A Crude Awakening was screened off a very high quality time-coded DVD on Sunday night at home; Fireworks Wednesday was also a time-coded DVD preview screener viewed after getting home from Waitress on Monday night.
It’s Bourne-time again and rogue-agent Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is still trying to find out who he is, who erased his memory and why. A Guardian journalist (Paddy Considine) seems to know something so he takes the Eurostar to London and within 15 minutes of arriving the bodies are piling up.
In a cunning (not to mention potentially confusing) screenwriting coup the first two-thirds of Ultimatum actually takes place ‘before’ the final 15 minutes of Supremacy (the previous sequel) and the two time-lines meet briefly before Ultimatum picks us up and takes us to the final, fascinating, reveal: of a plot (as the saying goes) ripped from the headlines — and from post‑9/11 paranoid, punch-drunk, American foreign policy.
Returning swiftly from the Festival is The Italian, a lovely and old-fashioned art-house winner about a six year-old Russian orphan played by the wonderful Kolya Spiridonov. He’s Vanya, a little urchin with soulful eyes who sees everything that goes on in his wretched Dickensian orphanage including the corruption, thievery and abuse. The mother of his best friend makes a pathetic drunken appearance which gives him the idea that he, too, might have a mother. And, if he has a mother then there’s no reason why he can’t find her so they can live together forever. Highly recommended.
My Best Friend is one of those French films that signals its gallic credentials with plenty of accordion music (though falls short of gratuitous Eiffel Tower shots like Orchestra Seats earlier in the year). Ubiquitous Daniel Auteuill plays an antique dealer who discovers he has no friends but needs one to win a bet. He discovers trivia buff taxi driver Dany Boon who seems to win friends effortlessly and demands to know his secret.
And, like so many French films, the effete bourgeois gets life lessons from the down-to-earth proletarian (cf Conversations With My Gardener, still to return from the Festival) because the life of an intellectual is no life at all. If this was an American remake starring John Travolta and, say, Chris Rock we’d call it the rubbish it is.
Talking of rubbish American remakes, No Reservations is a virtually shot-for-shot recreation of the German hit Mostly Martha about an uptight female chef disarmed by her 9 year-old niece and the vivid Italian chef she is forced to work beside. This is a vehicle for Catherine Zeta-Jones with support from Little Miss Sunshine’s Abigail Breslin and talking chin Aaron Eckhart and I’m sure most will find it unexceptional; I despised its lazy competence including the cynical ability to commission a rare Philip Glass score and then discard it whenever the need for a cheap pop cue appears.
Breach is a terribly good, low-key, post-Cold War thriller anchored by a Champions League performance from Chris Cooper as real-life FBI traitor Robert Hanssen who was caught and convicted in February 2001 after 22 years selling secrets to the Russians. Helping nail him is rookie Ryan Phillippe who, at first, is seduced by his pious Catholicism and computer-nerdery before discovering the complex and unusual man inside. Of course, while the FBI was putting every spare man-hour on the case of the mole within, several Saudi students were learning to fly planes in Florida so it wasn’t exactly the Bureau’s finest hour.
In The War Within, Grand Central Station in New York is the target of fictional Al-Qaeda terrorist Hassan who, like Derek Luke’s character in Catch a Fire a few weeks ago, is an innocent man radicalised by the brutality around him. Very well made and photographed (HD’s digital ability to produce vivid, saturated colours well to the fore) on a modest budget. The War Within is almost calculated to be of limited interest to mainstream audiences but will certainly reward those who seek it out.
In Black Snake Moan, psychologically-damaged abuse-victim Christina Ricci goes off the deep end when boyfriend Justin Timberlake leaves their small Tennessee town to join the National Guard. Grizzled Blues veteran Samuel L. Jackson chains her to a radiator to save her from herself but he has issues of his own, of course. Black Snake Moan gets better the more it trusts its characters and, if you can get past the pulp shock value, there’s a good film inside.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times, Wednesday 23 August, 2007.
Some screening notes: The Italian screened at home several weeks ago on a time-coded DVD from the Film Festival; My Best Friend viewed from the too close front row of a packed Penthouse Three (the big new one) on 11 August; No Reservations seen at a virtually empty staff and media screening in Readings 8 at 9.15 on a Monday morning (6 August); Breach watched this Monday (20 August) at the Empire in Island Bay who shouted me a free coffee after I bitched about the bus driver making me throw my first one away; The War Within screened at home on Saturday night from a gently watermarked DVD from Arkles, the distributor; Black Snake Moan screened at the Paramount on Monday afternoon.
Full disclosure: I have done paid work in the past for Arkles Entertainment (distributor of The War Within) and am designing their new web site which will be live next week.
Eagle vs Shark carries a great burden of expectation: Taika Waititi’s Oscar nomination, invitations to Sundance, international Miramax support, pointless comparisons with Napoleon Dynamite. A film with less heart than this one could easily collapse under all that weight but this Eagle soars.
Loren Horsley is Lily, a hopeless romantic with her heart set on Jarrod (Jemaine Clement) from the video game shop a few doors down. Unfortunately, Jarrod’s a dick but she sees something in him and, over the course of a lovely and sad little film, teases it out despite all good sense telling her to run a mile. EVS is full of great (mostly small) comic moments and observations and on the rare occasions when something doesn’t quite work it’s easy to ride with it. A wonderful, unusual, soundtrack from The Phoenix Foundation, too.
Also not-to-be-missed is Ten Canoes, the first genuinely indigenous film ever to come out of Australia. The Yolngu people of Arnhem Land in Northern Territory collaborated with Rolf de Heer (The Tracker) to tell one of their own stories — and tell it their own way — and the result is beautiful and human and scatalogically funny. A reminder of what cinema can achieve when it is set free.
After a 12 year layoff Bruce Willis finally returns to the role that catapulted him to superstardom (and off the top of several exploding buildings) in Die Hard 4.0 (also known as Live Free or Die Hard in countries that still care about freedom). The technology-terrorism premise might as well be flower-arranging for all the sense it makes, but it gets us to the meat which is John McClane being an ass, taking a beating and blowing stuff up. It pushes most of the right Die Hard buttons, but in the end that’s all it manages to do — push buttons.
Michael Moore has been getting a hard time recently for all sorts of reasons (not making “proper” balanced documentaries, not fronting up to those who would turn his tactics back on him) but the criticism is misguided. Moore isn’t really a documentarian — he’s a polemicist. In his eyes he’s fighting a war for the ordinary citizen against an entrenched and corrupt capitalist super-state. Why should he ever have to fight fair? There is enormous wickedness and injustice in this world and if it takes Moore and a few low-blows to help turn that around then I’m all for it. As it turns out, Sicko is the best of his films to date with fewer of the cheap stunts that arm his critics and a finale in Cuba with some 9/11 rescue workers that I found quite moving.
Of course, there are no greater heroes in our modern age than New York fire-fighters which is why it was a smart move by Adam Sandler’s team to set their (ahem) sensitive plea for tolerance, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, among them. Larry (Kevin James) is a widower and the City bureaucracy won’t let him make his kids beneficiaries of his insurance. But if he goes to Canada and marries his best friend Chuck (Sandler) he can somehow sort it all out. This is, of course, fraud and when they are investigated the duo learn a lot about intolerance as well as the, er, gay lifestyle choice. My favourite moment in a movie sprinkled with a handful was the cameo appearance by closeted gay icon (and the first Jason Bourne) Richard Chamberlain as the judge at the hearing.
Finally, Te Radar is a micro-budget (and micro-scale) Michael Moore in Destiny in Motion, a thin documentary about the birth of the Destiny New Zealand political party and the connections (fairly obvious) with Bishop Brian Tamaki’s Destiny Church. The irony of this exposé of pentecostal political manipulation playing at the Paramount (a venue that now turns into a happy-clappy Church every Sunday) was not lost on me.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday, 15 August, 2007.
Full disclosure: Like many people in Wellington, and the motion picture industry, I count Loren and Taika as mates; I used to co-own the Paramount; Ten Canoes is distributed by Richard Dalton at Palace/Fresh Films who is also a mate.
While the Film Festival takes up a justifiably huge chunk of time and mindspace during these two weeks the world of commercial cinema has hit back hard with two of the best films of the year.
Amazing Grace is a handsome period piece about the campaigning life of William Wilberforce, tireless toiler for social justice and what we now call human rights in the 19th century. The film focusses on his leadership of the movement to ban the transatlantic slave trade in the teeth of entrenched commercial and political opposition. 11 million African men, women and children were dragged from their homes, clapped in chains and forced to work in the plantations and refineries that fuelled the British Empire.
Wilberforce is played by Mr Fantastic (or Captain Hornblower, if you prefer) Ioan Gruffudd and, despite his lack of heavyweight credentials, he holds up nicely in competition with some of British cinema’s finest. The Great Gambon (most recently Dumbledore in Harry Potter), Rufus Sewell (The Illusionist), Toby Jones (Infamous), Stephen Campbell Moore (The History Boys) and the marvellous Albert Finney all get moments to rise above the occasionally clunky, exposition-heavy, script.
Finney, in particular, as the former slave-ship captain John Newton who actually wrote the hymn Amazing Grace (and the line “who saved a wretch like me” comes from deep inside a tortured conscience) is splendid.
Even better is Knocked Up, Judd Apatow’s brilliant follow-up to The 40 Year Old Virgin. Supporting actor in the earlier film, Seth Rogen, gets promoted to the lead as Ben Stone, a fun-loving layabout who gets his one night stand pregnant and then learns the hard way about responsibility, adulthood and love. Or you could say it’s about Katherine Heigl’s character Alison Scott, an ambitious reporter for the E! Channel who gets pregnant to a one night stand and then learns the hard way about family, sacrifice and pain.
Either way you choose it, Knocked Up is a wonderful film that shows a deep-seated love for life in all it’s gooey glory. The supporting cast are perfect, including (the sometimes patchy) Paul Rudd and Mrs Apatow, Leslie Mann, as the scary married couple our heroes use to alternately inspire or repel each other.
Judd Apatow made his name in television, writing and producing shows like “The Ben Stiller Show” and the great “Freaks and Geeks”. Another “Freaks and Geeks” alumni, Mike White, also has a feature out this week: Year of the Dog starring Molly Shannon. Shannon plays dowdy secretary Peggy whose beloved dog Pencil dies in somewhat mysterious circumstances leaving her alone to face the world.
In her attempts to replace Pencil with something (another dog, a man) she learns a little bit about the world and an awful lot about herself. Like Knocked Up there’s a contrast-couple, there to show our heroes what life might be like if only they gave up being themselves, in this case played by Laura Dern and Thomas McCarthy; and like Knocked Up there’s a lot of episodic comedy moments though with a much darker edge.
Year of the Dog is White’s first feature as director (after writing films like Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl and The School of Rock) and it seems as if he hasn’t directed this film so much as written and photographed it. That’s not to say that it isn’t enjoyable — it is. It’s just not terribly cinematic.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 25 July, 2007.
Nature of conflict: Year of the Dog opens at the Academy Cinema in Auckland on Weds 1 Aug. I do contract work for them designing and maintaining their website.