After what seems like weeks of holidays, Summer Noelles and Matinée Idles, Radio New Zealand National is pretty much back to normal which means the return of my fortnightly movie reviews. Let this be a little placeholder now that Rancho Notorious has become a fortnightly release.
As an added bonus, here’s Rancho Notorious co-host Kailey Carruthers talking to Lynn Freeman on Sunday’s Standing Room Only arts show.
Plus, New Zealand International Film Festival director Bill Gosden and I talking to Lynn earlier this summer about the future of New Zealand film under the new film commission régime of David Gibson.
Dan and Kailey are joined by Steve Austin on the line from Auckland to talk about “Straight to Video”, his blog reviewing the increasing number of films that don’t get a theatrical release in New Zealand (including James Gray’s The Immigrant). He sticks around to help the team review Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper which stars Bradley Cooper as an all-American hero traumatised by the Iraq war.
Plus, Kailey interviews Tess and Jamie from the Circa Theatre production of Seed.
In the last (non-Rancho) post I made a commitment to get back in to regular reviewing and to end my year-long sabbatical. (For the reasons behind the hiatus, it is recommended that you have a quick read. Go on, I’ll wait here.) It has come as a bit of a surprise to me that I’ve actually seen as much as I have over the last few months. It didn’t feel like it but — thanks to Radio New Zealand, FishHead and Rancho Notorious — fully 18 of the films currently screening around Wellington are films I can actually have an opinion on.
Anyway, here goes, and I might as well start with the oldest first. Which, as it turns out, is also a contender for the worst film in this post.
I’ve never managed to hide my disdain for Little Miss Sunshine, a film which is beloved by many and held up as an example of quality screenwriting to which we all should aspire. It is, in fact, garbage. A collection of tics masquerading as characters stuck in a contrived-cute situation in which life lessons will be learned too easily and happy endings will be unearned. Theodore Melfi’s debut feature St. Vincentalso falls into all these traps only deeper. It also relies so heavily on the great Bill Murray that it manages to even bring him into disrepute.
Strathmore’s finest son, Russell ‘Rusty’ Crowe, has been around film sets and worked alongside good, average and bad directors now for nearly 25 years, so it comes as no surprise to find that good, average and bad habits have rubbed off on him when it comes to his turn in the director’s chair.
As an actor, he has been most successful when subtlety is eschewed and grand gestures and emotions are called for — the angry skinhead in Romper Stomper, Oscar-winning Maximus in Gladiator, conjuring up a good performance despite an average singing voice in Les Misérables‚and saving the world with the voice of God in his head in Noah earlier this year. Even my favourite Crowe performance, the gay son in the poignant 1994 Australian drama The Sum of Us, had a heart as big as, they say, a whale.
This big-heartedness is the great strength of Crowe’s directorial debut, The Water Diviner, the story of a grieving father searching for what remains of his sons, who he allowed to enlist and then be all but obliterated on the unforgiving coast of the Dardanelles. This is an Anzac story, and it couldn’t be better timed with our attention turned once again to those who fought and died for us a hundred years ago.
Another strength of Crowe’s film — and the original script by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios — is that it never lets us forget that two sides were sacrificing their young men on those cliffs. The Turks, who during the story are helping the British and Anzacs locate the remains of the dead on the hillside at the same time as preparing to defend their homeland once again from the Greeks on another front, lost as many as the Allies, and their story is usually a sideshow in these things. The performances by Yilmaz Erdogan and Cem Yilmaz — as Turkish officers with mixed motivations in aiding the bereaved Victorian farmer — help restore that balance somewhat.
The Water Diviner is not without evidence of those bad habits, though. An ill-advised romantic sub-plot with a Turkish widow (played by Russian beauty Olga Kurylenko) detracts from the solidly anti-war, yet courageously metaphysical, main story. The Water Diviner, on a relatively low budget, also manages to help me forget the wobbly rubber bayonets of the sole New Zealand feature on this subject, Dale Bradley’s deeply flawed 1992 adaptation of Maurice Shadbolt’s Once on Chunuk Bair.
(Originally printed in the Dec/Jan issue Wellington’s FishHead magazine.)
The first of the cars I got to test drive for FishHead magazine, the $170,000 BMW M3.
It has been nearly four months since I posted something other than a podcast to this site and two years since I posted one of my “Best of the Year” film roundups. I haven’t seen enough this year to justify one of those but, seeing as the year is reaching its conclusion, I feel I ought to prove to myself that I can still produce a few words every now and then.
If all you knew of me was my output here at F&S then you could be forgiven for thinking that I had gone off the boil a bit. After all, the site became popular for my regular film reviews and the audio content that now dominates was simply an added bonus. I have taken to calling 2014 a sabbatical year, a palate cleanser, but that means that at some point I need to get back on the horse and start riding. I have every intention of doing that in 2015 but — if it proves anything like the last 12 months my wishes might not matter a damn.
So, what have I been up to? How do I justify calling 2014 a great year?