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By Cinema, meta and Wellington

This is the column I submitted to the Capital Times last week. After a little discussion, Editor Aaron and I decided that it would serve no good purpose in running it in the paper, but it might be of interest here.

First up, I’d like to thank everyone who voted for this column in the Readers’ Poll — very gratifying. It was very nice to confirm that one is read and appreciated.

But I’m not actually reviewing films this week, for a couple of reasons which will give you an idea about how this thing gets put together. For the (almost) two years that I have been dropping this column on you I have attempted, space permitting, to cover every film that gets released in as timely a fashion as we can manage. Not because I desperately need to see the new Nancy Drew film or Curse of the Golden Flower or Meet Dave, but so that you, dear reader, when deciding what to do this weekend, will at least know that a film exists, what it might be about, and that “that clown Slevin hated it” so it’s probably worth a look. It’s a service and nobody else provides it.

This means watching upwards of half a dozen films a week on top of a full-time job and part-time study, making each weekend a military exercise in efficient time management; checking schedules for every cinema along with bus timetables, work rosters, family birthdays, you name it.

This year, the Capital Times wasn’t offered a media pass for Reading Cinemas which meant screening options were reduced somewhat. If a Readings film is playing anywhere else in town, I’ll happily watch it at that location (except Hoyts as Capital Times doesn’t have a pass for there, either) but on the rare occasion they have an exclusive I rely on radio station previews, the occasional distributor pass or the generosity of the Dom-Post’s Graeme Tuckett (as his date). With creativity, we get by.

This week, of the four films opening that haven’t already been covered, three are Readings/Hoyts exclusives which, as you can guess, is an almighty pain in the a$$.

On Saturday I discovered that I am no longer on the Penthouse Cinema’s accredited reviewers list, I’m guessing due to something I wrote in this column a few weeks ago criticising the technical presentation in two of their four cinemas. It was nothing that I hadn’t mentioned to staff at the time (who responded with a shrug) and in the very same column I praised the new cinema 3 which is a lovely room, beautifully proportioned, very comfortable and technically excellent.

I’ve always believed that, because of the intensely local nature of the Capital Times, I should review the experience as well as the individual film and if the cinema is cold (Rialto), the aspect ratio is wrong (Rialto again), the purple soundtrack is clearly visible on the side of the screen (yes, Rialto again — an easy target as they don’t exist anymore): if it effects the experience I’ll mention it. Or not. For example, I didn’t mention that at my last (final?) visit to the Penthouse I tripped over an empty wine bottle left behind from the evening before, had to close the door to the cinema myself once the film had started and, half way through the screening find an attendant and tell them that the house lights had come on.

Of course, the Penthouse is under no obligation to give free tickets to anyone, particularly if they feel they’ve been maligned, but I could have done with finding this out before I schlepped my way up the Brooklyn Hill in the rain and wasted my Saturday afternoon. Son of Rambow is the fourth film of the week, and having been turned away from it, frankly, I’m in no mood to bust my balls trying to see the the others.

I really don’t want to sound all “poor me” about this business, as I say it’s neither here nor there whether I see rubbish like Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution or not, but it’s Capital Times readers that miss out and that bothers me. Normal service will be resumed next week, minus any Penthouse exclusive product until further notice, but I’d be interested to know what readers think. Do you care about standards, or just the films?

2008 Film Festival preview

By Cinema, Reviews and Wellington

Wellington Film Festival posterThe Film Festival has been a fixture of Wellington’s winter calendar for nearly 40 years and for those of us who organise our lives around glowing rectangles of one kind or another there is no better way to spend a cold and wet afternoon than in the comfy leather chairs at the Embassy, engrossed in a work of art.

Programming a Festival like Wellington may seem easy but I can assure you it’s getting tougher every year. The sheer volume of independent film is growing beyond all reason (I read that there were around 5,000 films submitted to Sundance last year) and attention must be paid to all four corners of the globe nowadays.

The glossy programme (doing double-duty this year as Festival Guide Book and Souvenir Programme) is 90 pages long and I direct you to it forthwith — my role here is, with the help of some previews from the Festival office, to point your attention towards some of the unheralded titles available amongst the hundreds on offer.

The first thing to point out is that, unlike the old days, there is nothing to be gained in trying to guess which films will return for a commercial season. With the loss of the three (otherwise unlamented) Rialto screens in June, there is even less chance of a film coming back than before and the general downturn in attendance this year has made distributors wary. At the moment there are no plans to release The Savages (a well-observed, superbly acted drama with plenty of black humour starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) and even the Jack Black — Michel Gondry comedy Be Kind Rewind is expected to go straight to DVD post-Festival (although strong local sales may provoke a change of mind). Recommendation: if the big screen experience is important to you, don’t wait.

Many films in the Festival are never likely to come back commercially — they may not even have local distribution and thus even a DVD release is unlikely. Of the feature films I got a chance to see before deadline, I was most taken with Silent Light by Mexican Carlos ReygadaJapón, 2003). In an isolated Mennonite community in Mexico, a husband has to deal with the consequences when he tells his wife of his love for another woman. A fable-like story, exquisitely photographed, with an ending that more than rewards the work you have to put in. I made the mistake of watching it over two nights which reduced its potency by about 75% and I recommend you get to the Embassy screening (if possible) where you can wrap it around you like a blanket.

Director Shane Meadows has been a personal and Festival favourite for nearly 13 years and he showed with last year’s This is England that he is striking a rich vein of form. Somers Town stars that film’s Thomas Turgoose (now 16) as Tomo, on the run from an unmentionable family life in Nottingham. In London, he meets another lonely drifter, Polish immigrant Marek, and they spend the Summer larking about and growing up in the streets around St Pancras. Fully funded by the Eurostar company as an act of pure patronage, perhaps it could be a model for the new KiwiRail company to follow.

In the documentary section (with the immensely strong music department justifiably given its own section of the programme) there is something for everyone. With no less than three Iraq War docos to choose from you could do a lot worse than Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure about the abuse-revealing photographs from Abu Ghraib. No one frames a story better than Morris and, while all most of the talk about the film has been abstract discussion about the nature of photographic reality, it should arouse plenty of righteous anger simply for the horror it portrays.

Crazy Love is another well-constructed tale. With this one it helps to not know too much detail going in, as the reveals are deliciously handled. Suffice to say that love is blind, in more ways than one.

If you wanted to explain to a stranger why New Zealand is known as Godzone, show them Barefoot Cinema, the documentary about beloved cinematographer Alun Bollinger. His idyllic life in Reefton on the West Coast, his career choices (not least to stay in NZ when his contemporaries in the 70s and 80s left for Hollywood) and of course the AlBol-HelBol 40 year love story. There’s a dark shadow that appears but even that is handled by the family with impeccable grace.

Ant Timpson has revived the somewhat moribund Incredibly Strange Film Festival after several years as a watered-down That’s Incredible sub-section. It still sits a little uncomfortably within the whole but the programming is back to it’s best: you’ll find our cover star tucked away there in Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django. Meanwhile King of Kong plays like an amped up version of that crossword documentary last year, this time following vintage video game obsessives and the quest for the world Donkey Kong record. It’s a classic good guy/bad guy set-up and you’ll be as manipulated as any 8‑bit Mario, but it’s a lot of fun.

Finally, tucked away at the Film Archive for two lunchtime screenings is a little gem called The Return by Wellington filmmaker Kathy Dudding. I have just re-watched my two favourite films, London and Robinson in Space by Patrick Keiller, and was delighted to see Wellington get a similar aesthetic treatment — beautifully composed, perfectly balanced, standing images of modern Wellington (the Harbour and Oriental Bay for the most part) with Dudding’s grandmother’s memories of Edwardian and post-WWI Wellington on the soundtrack. Mesmerising and moving.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 16 July, 2008. Cross-posted to the Wellingtonista.

Notes on screening conditions: All titles except Standard Operating Procedure were previewed on DVD, usually watermarked and timecoded. Standard Operating Procedure was previewed in the Paramount’s Bergman cinema.

Review: “Two Little Boys” by Duncan Sarkies

By Audio, Literature, Music and Wellington

Two Little Boys cover This morning I hustled across town to Radio NZ House on The Terrace to review Duncan Sarkies’ new novel “Two Little Boys” for Nine to Noon. You can click here (for a week at least) to listen to what Kathryn and I had to say. As is often the case when I’m doing something for the first time (or for the first time in a long time) it was not a 100% satisfactory performance but I’ll let you be the judge. It is a good book, though, and I recommend it to you.

And when you’ve listened to the review (only 6 minutes and 23 seconds, although it felt a lot less…) you can listen here to the song that inspired the title of the book. This version features not only the legendary Rolf Harris (who made it famous) but also Liam O’Maonlai from Hothouse Flowers. This version is from a 1993 ‘Stop the Killing in Northern Ireland’ charity/protest album called Peace Together:
[audio:|titles=Rolf Harris & Liam O’Maonlai — Two Little Boys (mp3)]

Review: Second Hand Wedding and What Happens in Vegas...

By Cinema, Reviews and Wellington

Second Hand Wedding posterAh, the perils of reviewing New Zealand cinema in New Zealand – or even tougher – Wellington cinema in Wellington. How does one approach a film that was executive produced by a former mentor, stars former workmates and drinking buddies, was written by a pal, and features familiar faces in almost every scene (and that this reviewer in a moment of flu-addled weakness even auditioned for)?

Luckily for me, Paul Murphy’s Second Hand Wedding makes it easy to avoid trespassing across the sensibilities of chums and colleagues by being an adorable confection, easy to praise and a pleasure to recommend. The moment you see a little yellow mini screaming around the Kapiti coast (director Paul Murphy’s father Geoff was responsible for Goodbye Pork Pie with Exec Kerry Robins back in 1981) you know you are in good hands and so it proves.

Geraldine Brophy plays Jill Rose, Kapiti’s top garage sale expert. Every Saturday morning you’ll find her (and best mate Muffy broadly played by Tina Regtien) trawling the nick-nacks looking for bargains. Long-suffering hubby Brian (a lovely and understated performance by Patrick Wilson) puts up with all the new paraphernalia because he has his own collection to maintain: all the pieces of a Model T Ford that will one day become a complete car again.

Local mechanic Stew (a performance by Ryan O’Kane that is, perhaps, lacking in detail) has proposed to the Rose’s daughter Cheryl (Holly Shanahan) but, afraid of the bargain basement wedding she fears her mother will provide, she keeps it a secret. When the news breaks, poor Jill is devastated but another tragedy forces the family (and the community) to pull together once again. There’s lots to love about Second Hand Wedding: music by Plan 9 and some songs I wouldn’t mind owning; classy editing particularly in the montages; perfect, witty production design by Brad Mill; but the heart and soul of the film is Brophy’s beautiful and measured performance. If she’s not at the front of the queue when the acting awards are handed out for this year I will be very surprised. Indeed, in this reviewer’s opinion it may be one the five best New Zealand screen performances ever.

What Happens in Vegas... posterIt’s slightly depressing to report that a no-budget kiwi comedy contains more subtlety and subtext in any given scene than a multi-million dollar Hollywood blockbuster wrangles in its entirety but it’s true. In What Happens in Vegas… Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz play a couple who meet in Las Vegas on their own individual rebound tours, get hopelessly drunk and hopelessly married on the same night, win $3m on the slots and then try and (with the help of scheming best friends Rob Corddry and Lake Bell) cheat the other out of the booty. Forced by grim Judge Whopper (Dennis Miller) to co-habit for 6 months to prove their marriage is real before he will grant them a divorce, our couple do everything in their power to make each other miserable and much (potential but for the most part unrealised) hilarity ensues.

The problem isn’t with the fitfully amusing leads (though Kutcher in particular appears incapable of playing the deeper notes that father Treat Williams’ paternal disapproval offers him), the film suffers hugely because the script insists on treating us like retards and loudly declaiming everything that it has to say. At one point Kutcher spikes Diaz’s smoothy with ecstacy to the sound of “I Want a New Drug”. Oh, please. Everything is just so flippin’ obvious. Characters say exactly what is in their heads, or exactly what they need to say to move the plot forward, usually both at the same time.

And finally, What Happens in Vegas… should be cursed for indulging in yet another example of Hollywood racism: the only character of colour in the film is a terrible, tight-ass Asian stereotype who is ridiculed relentlessly and mean-ly.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 14 May, 2008.

Update: I have added a link to The Cattlestops web site. They were responsible for the songs I wouldn’t mind owning.


By The Net and Wellington

Now that this year’s ‘V’ 48 Hours Furious Filmmaking Challenge is under way and 160 Wellington teams are out enjoying the sunshine, I have had a chance to resolve a few domestic issues that have been bugging me.

Firstly, broadband. I have been a Woosh Wireless customer since I started Miracle Pictures in 2005. I wanted a Telecom free home/office (and, in all fairness, I think Telecom also wanted a Dan-free network) and there was no such thing as naked dsl in those days. Woosh were the only game in town and I happily signed up for broadband and a phone. Apart from one speed-bump due to improved firmware back in late 2006, the service from Woosh has steadily deteriorated as it’s customer numbers have risen, to the extent that since Christmas I have been getting poorer than dial-up bandwidth at all times (other than the very middle of the night).

The first-level support email that I received from Woosh told me to point my aerial towards Unitec, which was challenging as Unitec is in Auckland and I am in Wellington. Then they told me that my problem would be escalated to second-level support and I got to wait for a couple more weeks. Last Monday I finally got a call from them (plus marks for not dropping me off their list entirely) and we went through the re-booting, moving the aerial, re-booting again, dance and we discovered the following: Despite the fact that I have no south facing windows and the aerial points north, I am connecting to the Wakefield Hospital cell-site which is due south. I can’t reach the Government House cell-site as Wellington Hospital and Mt Victoria are in the way. In fact, I am getting the Wakefield Hospital signal reflected off the Wellington Hospital and hillside.

And the Wakefield Hospital cell site is the busiest and most congested in the city.

So, we reached an agreement that we would part company. I didn’t quite have the heart to tell the young man that I’d already booked an impressive-seeming naked DSL with IP phone service with Xnet (a company that doesn’t appear to need to advertise). They have a sane approach to volume charging whereby you don’t have to commit to a plan, so I only pay for what I use and the per MB rate is about what I have been paying at Woosh (but not always using).

This afternoon, I noticed that the DSL light on the new Linksys DSL modem was flashing, indicating that the line was live. A quick call to Xnet support got me the details they had inexplicably failed to email me and I was up and running. And boy was I running: My unscientific approach to measurement is basically keeping an eye on the throughput using iStatMenus. Before the change I was limping along with 1KB/s to 5KB/s download speed (sub dial-up) and after the change I was getting — get this — upwards of 350 to 700 and even over 1MB/s on a couple of occasions. That’s like a (thinks) 1000% increase in speed!

Now, after shifting the Airport I can really get some work done.