Near the end of 1979, the new hardline rulers of Iran – incensed by the US government’s support for the previous despot – stormed the embassy in Teheran and held the occupants hostage for over a year, long enough to wreck President Jimmy Carter’s attempt at re-election and to define American relations with the Persian Gulf for another thirty years. That side of the story is relatively well-known. The secret story of the six embassy staff who escaped, hid in the Canadian ambassador’s house, and were then spirited out of the country disguised as a Hollywood film crew? Not so much.
Thanks to the recent declassification of the CIA and State Department files, the weird and wonderful story of Argo can be told, and – this being a Hollywood story about a Hollywood story – it gets a bit of a punch-up to make sure none of the entertainment potential is wasted. So now, Argo is “inspired by a true story” rather than “based on a true story” and it is also the smartest and most entertaining Hollywood picture for grown-ups this year.
When I first visited this country back in 1982 we flew across the Pacific Ocean in daylight and from my window seat I got a birds eye view of … not very much. Lots of flat blue uninterrupted sea, not even so much a rusty tramp steamer to break the monotony. No wonder they usually do this leg in the dark, I thought.
Once I got here I understood that there was a lot going on down there on many tiny speckled islands and atolls – and the richness of the Pacific and its relationship to New Zealand was just one of the reasons why I’m still here all these years later – but now the creeping specter of global warming is transforming the Pacific into the pristine environment I thought I saw all those years ago – unsullied by coral, sand, taro or people.
This process is already well under way as Briar March’s astounding documentary There Once was an Island illustrates. In 2006 Ms. March and a tiny crew spent several months on Takuu, a remote atoll overseen by the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG), serviced and supported by a rare and irregular shipping service and short wave radio. Even then the waves were lapping at the edge of peoples’ homes and the ABG offer of a haven among the mainland sugar plantations effectively meant asking 4000 people to say goodbye to their entire way of life.
I watch a lot of movies in this job and this week I’d like to start with a couple of important tips that will help keep your cinema-going experience in top shape. Firstly, ice cream. Avoid tubs of ice cream if possible because you have to look down every scoop to make sure you’re not scooping ice cream into your lap and every time you look down you miss something important on the screen. This is particularly important for subtitled films.
Secondly, when your local cinema schedules an arthouse film that hasn’t been previously programmed by the Film Festival, ask yourself why that might be before committing to a ticket. Case in point: Leaving (aka Partir) a modern day updating of the Lady Chatterley story starring Kristin Scott Thomas. She plays a well-off married woman named Suzanne who makes the tragic mistake of falling for the Spanish builder who is working on her house. In short order she realises that her marriage (though materially successful) is loveless, leaves her snobby surgeon husband (Yvan Attal) and the kids to shack up with her new lover (Sergi López) and tries to start a new life without all the bourgeois home comforts.
It seems to me that every French film that makes it to New Zealand is about the same thing: the clash of cultures between the well-off, culturally sophisticated but somehow not quite real, middle-class and the salt-of-the-earth working people, and the dangers of the two mixing. Sometimes those dangers play themselves out comedically (The Valet, Welcome to the Sticks), sometimes dramatically (Conversations with My Gardener) and sometimes tragically as we have here. And Leaving is tragic in more ways than one.
My favourite post-Oscars quote came from David Thomson in The Guardian: “When the Slumdog mob – Europeans and Indians, adults and kids – took the stage to claim the best picture Oscar, a landmark was being established which directly reflects America’s reduced place in the world.” And as if to illustrate that very point, this week Hollywood have offered us a piteous prison comedy called Big Stan and Zack and Miri Make a Porno. It’s like they aren’t even trying anymore.
Big Stan is the debut feature by comic actor Rob Schneider, best-known for a pair of ghastly adult comedies featuring his hapless male prostitute alter-ego Deuce Bigelow. Schneider amazingly maintains a solid career (largely via the patronage of his great friend Adam Sandler) but there’s no satisfactory explanation for how he was let loose with a camera except that Hollywood is genuinely out of ideas.
Schneider plays a real estate con man who is convicted and sentenced to jail. Terrified at the prospect of imminent anal rape he enlists a martial arts master (David Carradine) to make him, er, impregnable. Like being punched in the swingers by an angry dwarf for 90 minutes.
I fully intended to bring some intellectual acuity back to film commentary this week; maybe toss around terms like mise en scène and cognitive dissonance; maybe name drop Bresson and his thematic austerity and formal rigour. Then I saw little Kiwi battler, The Devil Dared Me To, a hand-made low-brow entertainment from the vodka and Becks-fuelled imaginations of Back of the Y’s Chris Stapp and Matt Heath, and I realised that high-falutin’ cinema theory was destined for the back burner for another week.
Stapp plays wannabe stunt hero Randy Campbell and Heath is his malevolent mentor Dick Johansonson. The Timaru Hellriders are about to collapse under the weight of invidious OSH attention and Dick’s lost nerve. Oily promoter Sheldon Snake (Dominic Bowden) bails them out so they can take on the North Island and get Campbell closer to his dream of being the first man to jump Cook Strait in a rocket car. Wildly uneven but often very, very, funny The Devil Dared Me To contains possibly the worst acting (and worst spelling) of any recent New Zealand film.
It’s entirely appropriate that The Devil has come out while we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of Roger Donaldson’s Sleeping Dogs; another back yard, oily rag feature with a similar larrikin approach towards the production process.
2007 has been a great year for good films but a poor year for great films; very little of what I’ve seen in 2007 belongs in the very top echelon. The most serious contender so far is Atonement, adapted from Ian McEwan’s novel about a lie told in innocence that has far reaching and terrible consequences.
In a blissfully beautiful British country house in the summer of 1935, precocious 13-year-old Briony Tallis (luminous Saoirse Ronan) is jealous of the attention her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) is getting from handsome Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) and impulsively accuses him of a terrible crime. The accusation tears the young lovers apart and leaves Briony consumed by a grievous guilt that she takes a lifetime to come to terms with. Virtually faultless.
I really wanted to give The Brave One the benefit of the doubt until its absurdity and consistently poor narrative choices overcame my resistance and I simply had to hate it. Jodie Foster plays mild-mannered Erica Bain, a radio producer in New York, engaged to handsome doctor Naveen Andrews from Lost. Walking the dog late one night the couple are brutally attacked by thugs leaving her badly beaten and the boyfriend dead. Overcome by fear and grief she buys a gun for protection but finds herself taking on a much more malevolent role. Terrence Howard is the good cop on her trail.
There’s nothing so objectionable on offer in Conversations With My Gardener, a French charmer starring the ubiquitous Daniel Auteuil as an artist returning to his family home in the country while his divorce goes through. He employs wily local Jean-Pierre Darroussin to knock him up a vegetable garden and, over the summer, the two embark on a friendship that involves (as is the way of things in French films) the simple local giving life lessons to the sophisticated townie.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 17 October, 2007.
Returning 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 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.
Talking 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 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.
In 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.
In 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.