It has been a long time between drinks here at Funerals & Snakes but that doesn’t mean that I have been idle. I continue to write and broadcast for RNZ (filling in for At the Movies on RNZ National and writing for the Widescreen channel on the website) and since the beginning of 2019 have tried to post at least a couple of reviews a week.
My deal with RNZ means I can’t repost that work here but there is no reason why I can’t start running summaries and highlights for my many ‘fans’. I’ll probably try and restart the newsletter, too, although what form that might take is still to be decided.
Rancho Notorious will be back in some form in 2020, too.
In one of these columns back in 2007 I said, “Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.” Those were the days, eh? Now you can’t get away from it. This week nostalgia is everywhere — getting up your nose and on your shoes — and the prime culprits are young whippersnappers who should know better — yearning for their High School years in that innocent-yet-filthy time before Y2K and 9/11 changed everything.
The first American Pie was a well-executed implementation of that noble genre, the teen sex comedy. Four sequels (two direct-to-video) leeched whatever goodwill there might have remained out of the project but — as the careers of Jason Biggs, Seann Williamm Scott and Chris Klein have stuttered — the Hollywood economy will eventually demand its tribute. American Reunion is the result.
I believe that it should be illegal to even mention the word Christmas in any month other than December. Yup, illegal. No one should be allowed to even breathe it, let alone have parades, display mince pies in supermarkets or throw staff parties. If, as a once-great nation, we can restrict firework sales to three days before Guy Fawkes I’m sure we can manage to pull our collective yuletide-obsessed heads in for a few weeks and focus all that attention on only one month a year.
At least that’s what I thought until last Friday. That was when I saw the new picture from England’s Aardman Animation, Arthur Christmas. I was prepared, based on my aforementioned bah-humbuggery — and some unprepossessing trailers — to be scornful and yet I was won over. Won over to the extent that I might as well be wrapped in tinsel with a fairy on top. Arthur Christmas made me believe in Christmas a week before I was ready.
This film is digital 3D rather than the stop-motion clay models that made Aardman famous, but the invention, wit, pace, structure and commitment to theme are all securely in place, brought to life by an awesome UK voice cast (Jim Broadbent and Bill Nighy both do outstanding work) and some brilliantly clever visuals.
It’s the weirdest coincidence. In two out of the three films I saw this week someone was shot in the ear. Seriously, go figure. Since I started this gig I’ve seen more than 400 films and no one has ever been shot in the ear and then, just like that, two come along at once.
That’s the only thing that connects two very different but very good films: Courtney Hunt’s debut thriller Frozen River and David Gordon Green’s very funny Pineapple Express. Frozen River is being sold as a thriller, and it does have some very tense edge-of-your-seat moments, but it’s actually a gritty drama about America’s rural poor with plenty of understanding and forgiveness running through its heart.
We open on a hard-faced woman’s tears. Melissa Leo plays Ray, whose husband Troy has given in to his gambling addiction and scarpered with the balloon-payment on their new trailer and it’s two days before Christmas. She’s bringing up her two children in a tiny trailer down a muddy driveway in a small town on the snowy border between New York state and Quebec, working part time in the Yankee Dollar store and trying to make ends meet.
Searching for the deadbeat husband at the local, Mohawk-run, bingo hall she meets Lila Littlewolf who is driving Troy’s abandoned car. Lila (Misty Upham) is a depressed young woman, living in her own lonely trailer, who intends to use the car to bring a few illegal immigrants in to the country, crossing the frozen river at the Indian reservation where the State Troopers can’t go. Needing money (and having rights to the car), Ray agrees to help, gambling everything she has on making a couple of trips so she can get her family through Christmas.
Gambling is the thread running through the film — the First Nation Mohawk people fund their programmes and maintain their independence through gambling and the working poor like Ray gamble every day that the few choices they have won’t see them falling through the cracks in the ice — metaphorically or in reality.
A brilliant debut, though not tightly-plotted enough to really qualify as a thriller, Frozen River is up there with 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days as an earnest representation of people who would otherwise be invisible to us.
Rogen also stars as pot-head process server Dale Denton, who witnesses a murder and, in his panic, hides out with his dealer Saul (James Franco). Unfortunately for both of them, this brings the wrath of the pot-mob down on both of them and they are chased across suburban Glendale by a motley crew of ruffians and hoodlums, all the while making good use of the herb that gives the film its title.
Rogen and Franco both came to producer Judd Apatow’s attention during the short-lived but well-loved tv show “Freaks & Geeks” (which also starred Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s Jason Segal) and their easy rapport is a strength that gets the film through some of its shakier moments.
Stocktaking the new digital 3D realm, we have now had an animated original (Beowulf), a couple of concert movies (including the brilliant U2), a live-action dud (Journey to the Center of the Earth) and now we see the results when Hollywood goes back to the vault and re-masters an older film for the new technology. The Nightmare Before Christmas from 1993 is an excellent introduction to the process (if you haven’t been tempted before). It was always a vivid and original production (watched over by Tim Burton) and the 3D really makes it pop.
Jack Skellington is the king of Halloween but is jaded and bored. Discovering Christmas-town, he decides that he wants Christmas all to himself and hi-jacks it (kidnapping Santa Claus in the process). Animated (using similar stop-motion techniques to the Aardman films) by Henry Selick, Nightmare is wonderful to look at and not too long for kids, although if you have little tolerance for musical thee-ater no amount of glorious 3D will counteract Danny Elfman’s soundtrack. Me, I loved it.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 29 October, 2008.
Due to exams I skipped a week writing for the CT so there was no scheduled entry for 5 November. You haven’t missed anything. Now, I have to start catching up on movies before I’m swamped by the Christmas rush. This year has gone by so fast.
This week’s Capital Times film review: Casino Royale (Martin Campbell); China Blue (Micha X. Peled); Flushed Away (David Bowers & Sam Fell); Tiger and the Snow (Roberto Benigni). Illustrated but not annotated, too late at night, sorry.