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catch a fire

Review: The Italian, My Best Friend, No Reservations, Breach, The War Within and Black Snake Moan

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest, Reviews

The Italian posterReturning 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 posterMy 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.

No Reservations posterTalking 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 posterBreach 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.

The War Within posterIn 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.

Black Snake Moan posterIn 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.

Review: Because I Said So, License To Wed and Catch a Fire

By Cinema, Reviews

It’s been a tough old week to be a cinephile. Firstly, poet of the dark interi­or of human exist­ence Ingmar Bergman finally gives up the ghost, then I get to watch a dis­mal romantic com­edy star­ring Mandy Moore. Next, Michelangelo Antonioni, cine­mat­ic archi­tect of the spaces between people, him­self passes over and I get to watch anoth­er dis­mal romantic com­edy star­ring Mandy Moore. If it had­n’t been for The Last Picture Show at the Festival it might have been a depress­ing week indeed.

Because I Said So posterThe Mandy Moore rom-com double-feature fea­tures Because I Said So and License To Wed, both dir­ec­ted by TV hacks who, when fur­nished with decent scripts, can turn out cred­it­able work (Michael Lehmann made Heathers and The Truth About Cats and Dogs) but that isn’t the case here.

In Because I Said So Mandy Moore plays a cater­er and the young­est daugh­ter of pushy single mom Diane Keaton. She’s the only daugh­ter not yet mar­ried and, of course, the whole fam­ily frets about her find­ing the right man before it’s too late (though she’s only about 22). Secretly Keaton places an ad at an Internet dat­ing site hop­ing to screen can­did­ates on Moore’s behalf; mean­while Moore actu­ally falls for a musi­cian with a tat­too and com­edy mis­un­der­stand­ings obvi­ously ensue.

I found it impossible to dredge up any enthu­si­asm for this film but the hand­ful of middle-aged women I shared the screen­ing with laughed like drains so you might want to take their opin­ion over mine if you are so inclined.

License To Wed posterIn License To Wed Moore plays a flor­ist who has just got engaged to John Krasinsky (Tim from the American ver­sion of The Office). The church wed­ding she has always dreamed of comes with strings attached – a com­puls­ory mar­riage pre­par­a­tion course taken by Reverend Frank played by Robin Williams. There are two kinds of Robin Williams film nowadays: the ser­i­ous kind and the crap kind and this is the lat­ter. Krasinsky is quite watch­able though and I sus­pect we’ll be see­ing a lot more of him over the next wee while – he’s like a young Tom Hanks with a pair of com­edy ears on.

Catch a Fire posterReturning from the World Cinema Showcase earli­er this year is the splen­did Apartheid-era polit­ic­al thrill­er Catch a Fire star­ring Tim Robbins and (one of my favour­ite act­ors) Derek Luke from Antwone Fisher. The film is set in the North Eastern Coal Fields of South Africa in 1980 where all com­munit­ies live in the shad­ow of the huge Secunda Oil Refinery. Luke plays apolit­ic­al refinery work­er Patrick Chamusso who becomes politi­cised after being accused and tor­tured over a ter­ror­ist attack at the refinery.

He travels to Mozambique to join the ANC and plot the destruc­tion of the refinery, and the over­throw of the hated apartheid sys­tem. What he does­n’t real­ise is that the mor­al cor­rup­tion of apartheid reflects itself in real world cor­rup­tion every­where and that his move­ments have been watched by police­man Nic Vos (Robbins).

Catch a Fire is a test­a­ment to the many sac­ri­fices of those years dis­guised as a fast-moving thrill­er and it works on both levels. Written by Shawn Slovo, her­self the daugh­ter of white ANC free­dom fight­ers, the film also takes a sens­it­ive approach (in the spir­it of Truth and Reconciliation) to the white side of the story, show­ing the spir­itu­al dam­age done to them by apartheid. You won’t find many more sat­is­fy­ing (or more beau­ti­fully pho­to­graphed) films this year.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday, 8 August, 2007.