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Review: Amazing Grace, Knocked Up and Year of the Dog

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

Amazing Grace posterWhile 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.

Knocked Up posterEven 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.

Year of the Dog posterJudd 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.

Review: Kenny and more ...

By Cinema and Reviews

Kenny posterFilms like Kenny are usu­ally called “mock­u­ment­ar­ies” for two reas­ons: they appear to be doc­u­ment­ar­ies but they’re not really and (in films like Spinal Tap and TV’s “The Office”) they usu­ally “mock” their sub­jects. This is different.

In a delight­ful first fea­ture by the Jacobson Brothers, porta-loo plumb­er Kenny Smyth is a par­agon of a man: he loves his fam­ily; takes pride in his job; and finds the bright side of situ­ations that would force most of us to jump head first in to a bath of deoder­ant. The film fol­lows our hero (played to per­fec­tion by Shane Jacobson) through a few weeks of an event-filled Melbourne spring, cul­min­at­ing in the big one: over 125,000 people at the Melbourne Cup. While he per­forms his (lit­er­ally) thank­less tasks, Kenny stoic­ally puts up with an unre­li­able ex-wife, a co-worker with diarrhoea (of the verbal kind) and a fath­er who is one of the great screen mon­sters of all time (played with an admir­able absence of van­ity by the real Jacobson pere, Ronald).

Kenny is a philosopher-plumber, a bard of the bath­room, and has that mas­tery of the ver­nacu­lar that Australians seem to excel at: “Mate, there’s a smell in here that will out­last reli­gion!” is my favour­ite but there’s plenty more.

Kenny is my num­ber one film of the year and the fun­ni­est Australian pic­ture since The Castle. Highly recom­men­ded to any­one who has ever taken a dump (or had a Henry-Pissinger).

Kokoda poster2006 is the Year Of The Veteran and fol­low­ing Clint Eastwood’s out­stand­ing Flags of Our Fathers we now have an Australian salute to the men who served in the Pacific in WWII. Kokoda is the story of the Australians in Papua New Guinea in 1942, when they really were the last line of defence between the Japanese and the main­land and it is a tre­mend­ous example of effi­cient and atmo­spher­ic story-telling.

The film bene­fits from a lack of famil­i­ar faces as unne­ces­sary star power does­n’t get between us and the char­ac­ters, though lead Jack Finsterer has a bit of the young Mel Gibson about him. I’m not con­vinced that every Australian sol­dier in the Pacific had NIDA cheekbones and gym-bunny pecs but that’s a minor quibble for a film that con­vin­cingly hits so many oth­er marks. Even more remark­ably, the film was made over a two year peri­od by a group of 2004-vintage gradu­ates of the Australian Film, TV and Radio School but it would be a great achieve­ment by any­one, even a grizzled old vet­er­an like Eastwood.

A Good Year posterFinally, Ridley Scott re-unites with Strathmore’s finest, Russell Crowe, for A Good Year, a bosom-obsessed throwaway about a self-involved fin­an­cial trader who inher­its a broken-down château and vine­yard owned by his Uncle (Albert Finney). All involved seem to have spent the entire pro­ject with one eye on knocking-off time and why not if you’re sur­roun­ded by red wine in Provence in Summer? Australian one-hit-wonder Abby Abbie Cornish plays a beau­ti­ful Californian wine-expert who may be Uncle Henry’s ille­git­im­ate … sorry, I’ve lost you, haven’t I? A Good Year is about three months too long but it’s a Russell Crowe film and, by defin­i­tion, they have to be epic these days no mat­ter how slender the idea.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 15 November, 2006.

Update: Abbie Cornish spelling corrected.