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Conversations with my gardener

Review: Argo, The Intouchables, Fresh Meat, It’s a Girl, Shadow Dancer and Mental

By Cinema and Reviews

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.

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Review: There Once Was an Island, Bad Teacher, Cars 2, The Reluctant Infidel and My Afternoons with Margueritte

By Cinema and Reviews

There Once Was an Island posterWhen 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.

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Review: Leaving, She’s Out of My League, Date Night, Kick-Ass and Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang

By Cinema and Reviews

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.

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Review: Dean Spanley, Big Stan, Zack and Miri Make a Porno and Welcome to the Sticks

By Cinema and Reviews

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 posterBig 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.

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Review: The Devil Dared Me To, Atonement, A Mighty Heart, The Brave One and Conversations With My Gardener

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

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.

A Mighty Heart is an arms-length ver­sion of the true story of the Karachi kid­nap­ping and murder of American journ­al­ist Daniel Pearl in the after­math of 9/11. Actually, arms-length isn’t a ter­ribly fair descrip­tion: it starts that way but slowly reels you in thanks to assured dir­ec­tion from Michael Winterbottom and good per­form­ances from an ensemble cast led by Angelina Jolie.

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.

Full dis­clos­ure: I have known Ant Timpson (pro­du­cer of The Devil Dared Me To) since 1994 when I did pub­li­city for the first Incredibly Strange Film Festival and I look after the Wellington leg of the 48 Hours Furious Filmmaking Challenge which Ant has run since 2003. The 1st AD on Devil was Jeremy Anderson, who has been a very close friend and Black Caps fan for nearly 18 years. He is a top man and I’m stoked to see his work on the big screen. If you need a 1st, give him a call.

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

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and 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.