A friend of mine auditioned for Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (produced in Auckland in 2006) and didn’t get a part. I was pleased to report to him yesterday that he had dodged a (silver) bullet there as this nonsensical prequel to the Kate Beckinsale leather-fetishists fantasy series was not going to do anyone’s career any good.
The usually great Bill Nighy plays Viktor, leader of a bunch of aristocratic (but strangely democratic) vampires in middle ages middle Europe. They earn their keep by squeezing protection money out of the local humans – supposedly keeping the werewolves out of their hair – but evolution is not on their side and the wolves are in the ascendant.
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.
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.
The 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.
In 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.
Returning 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.