Kiwi crowd-pleasers don’t come much more crowd-pleasing than Tearepa Kahi’s Mt. Zion, featuring TV talent quester Stan Walker in a star-making performance as a working class kid with a dream. Slogging his unwilling guts out picking potatoes in the market gardens of 1979 Pukekohe, nervously making the first steps in a music career that seems impossible and fantasising about meeting the great Bob Marley, Walker’s Turei is out of step with his hard working father (Temuera Morrison) and the back-breaking work.
When a local promoter announces a competition to be the support act for the reggae legend’s forthcoming concert at Western Springs, Turei tests the boundaries of family and friendship to get a shot at the big time. The bones of the story are familiar, of course, but there’s meat on the bones too — a slice of New Zealand social history with economic changes making life harder for a people who don’t own the land that they work. Production design (by Savage) and authentic-looking 16mm photography all help give Mt. Zion a look of its own and the music — though not normally to my taste — is agreeable enough.
Economically speaking, theatres are a complete waste of space. I mean, take a look at the St James or the Embassy and try and imagine how many cubicles and desks you could fit in to those huge pieces of prime real estate. Or even better, how many cars could you park inside them? (Car parks require lower ceilings therefore more floors for the same building height) What kind of fool thinks of constructing a big empty building simply to shine a light through the middle of it?
This kind of nonsense has been going on for centuries though as Anonymous, Roland Emmerich’s new piece of speculative fiction, demonstrates. Stretching credulity almost as far as Star Trek requiring us to believe in faster-than-light speed, Anonymous asks its audience to assume that barely-literate actor Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) was not the author of all those plays and sonnets but instead they were penned by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) and used as a tool to rile the populace and provoke political unrest.
You can forget all talk of an Oscar for Heath Ledger’s Joker. If anyone is going to win an Academy Award for wearing some dodgy make-up in a noisy blockbuster no one is getting in the way of Robert Downey Jr. for Tropic Thunder. Totally believable, every second, as Kirk Lazarus, the Australian method actor (and multi-Oscar winner himself) who undergoes a radical skin re-pigmentation in order to portray tough-as-nails African-American Sgt. Osiris in the eponymous Vietnam epic, Downey Jr’s performance is a thing of wonder: A masterpiece of technique, timing, self-belief and dare I say it, soul. I’m still chuckling days later.
Lazarus is one of a handful of pampered Hollywood stars on location to recreate the last great untold Vietnam story — the suicide-mission rescue of “Four Leaf” Tayback during the legendary “Wet” Offensive of ’69. Under pressure from the studio to get back on schedule (and from handless “Four “Leaf” himself, Nick Nolte, to toughen the pencil-kneck panty-waists up a bit) director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) goes verité. With the help of hidden cameras, special effects and some heavily armed South East Asian drug lords, Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) and Alpa Chino (relative newcomer Brandon T. Jackson) find themselves up to their eyeballs in reality. Comedy reality, which is the best kind. One of my favourite films of the year so far, and I haven’t even mentioned Tom Cruise’s dancing.
Compared to the ferocious energy of Tropic Thunder, Tina Fey’s Baby Mama seems like a comedy from a different era. Fey plays über-clucky Kate Holbrook — successful middle-manager in Steve Martin’s organic produce company. Desperate for progeny (yet strangely single), her T shaped tubes make her a poor bet for IVF and the waiting list for adoption is years long. Surrogacy is her only solution and she barely bats an eyelid at the $100k price tag (she must share John McCain’s accountant). Despite the amount of money changing hands it is the surrogate that interviews the, what’s the word, surrogatee and she successfully passes the aura test posed by white trash “host” Amy Poehler (Blades of Glory).
The lively Poehler kick-starts every scene she is in while better-known stars like Martin, Greg Kinnear and Sigourney Weaver phone in their performances. Meanwhile Fey (“30 Rock”) is likeable enough, although the character seems to be in a world of her own most of the time, and Romany Malco from The Love Guru plays the token black character — a servant. Baby Mama is funnier, the more pregnancy-specific it gets. When it goes generic (speech-impediments, Martin’s new age schtick) it misses even the biggest targets by miles.
Paris is both the subject and the object of Cédric Klapisch’s ensemble drama about a cross-section of modern Parisian society. Romain Duris and Juliette Binoche are siblings, single, on the cusp of 40 and alienated from their parents. Duris is told his heart condition may finish him off sooner rather than later and mopes around the apartment, feeling sorry for himself while Binoche (like women everywhere) puts her own life on hold to care for him and her three children. Meanwhile, hangdog academic Fabrice Luchini (Intimate Strangers) has a crush on his beautiful student Mélanie Laurent, his architect brother is about to become a father but can’t stop crying. At street level, the market stallholders are also looking for love in the big city but have a more direct way of going about finding it.
I’ve made it seem a lot more contrived than it actually plays out. The direction is subtle and the performances are involving. It does suffer from the usual French cinematic philosophy, that working class experience is somehow more real than the self-absorbed bourgeois middle classes, but actually argues its case pretty well.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 28 August, 2008.
As recounted by celebrated neurologist Oliver Sacks in a recent New Yorker, amnesia is a fascinating condition. In the article he tells the story of classical musician Clive Wearing who, due to enchaphalitis more than 20 years ago, can retain new memories for no longer than a few seconds. The devastation of his case is transcended by two things: the love of his wife (which he is aware of even though he sees her as if for the first time every day) and his musical ability which remains complete.
In Hollywood, amnesia (like other disorders) is rarely portrayed as a tragic condition with serious and fascinating psychological impacts but instead is usually just a plot device. New thriller Unknown, starring Jim Caviezel, Greg Kinnear and Barry Pepper, tries a little bit of both.
In a remote abandoned chemical warehouse five men wake up with no memories of who they are or how they got there. Two of the group have been kidnapped, the others are the gang. But who?
While all the evidence points to Caviezel being one of the kidnappers (he wasn’t tied up at the beginning for a start) he doesn’t feel like one and, despite the shifting allegiances and Lord of the Flies power-plays, he attempts to bind the group together so they can all escape before the ringleader returns with the ransom. It’s an interesting existentialist provocation although, in the end, further psychological insight is sacrificed in favour of yet another plot twist.
Insight is what forensic psychologist Tilda Swinton is after in Stephanie Daley. Heavily pregnant, and still mourning the loss of a previous unborn child, she is asked to interview the eponymous schoolgirl (Amber Tamblyn) who is accused of concealing her own pregnancy and then murdering the new-born baby. Her examination will decide the fate of the timid young Christian girl who may indeed be too innocent to realize what a drunken date-rape can lead to. Stephanie Daley is a well acted drama with a fine sense of place, located in snowy upstate New York, and a lot going on under the surface.
Back at the multiplex, Rush Hour 3 is one of the poorest excuses for entertainment it is been my misfortune to witness. And to think that part-timer Chris Tucker was paid $25m to star in it (a fee which evidently did not require any time at the gym to prepare). Jackie Chan is showing his age too. Abject.
I spent most of the time watching La Vie En Rose thinking that I’d seen the film somewhere before. A beautifully art directed recreation of the life of a troubled artist from the wrong side of the tracks, devastated by drug addiction and guilt, it could have been Ray or Walk The Line except for the fact that little Edith Piaf didn’t have time for the redemption and triumph that the Hollywood biopics demand.
Piaf was an extraordinary character, a huge and vibrant voice in a frail and tiny frame. Writer-director Olivier Dahan makes consistently interesting choices (particularly a death-bed montage at the end which amazingly contains nothing that we have seen before) and Marion Cotillard plays Piaf with all the fierce and demented self-destructive energy she can summon up. She’s a force of nature and it is one of the performances of the year.
Finally, superb documentary Deep Water finally gets the promised commercial release and I urge you not to miss it. And, if you already saw it at the Festival check it out again as it’s quite a different film second time around.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 3 October, 2007.
Full disclosure: Unknown is distributed in New Zealand by Arkles Entertainment who pay me money to do stuff for them from time to time.
I grew up under the high-heeled jackboot of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, when post-apocalyptic visions of futuristic fascist dictatorships seemed to turn up as regularly as London buses. Back then we all felt that the world was at risk from the insane plans of a mentally deficient, war-mongering, US president captured by the military-industrial complex. Of course, now things are completely different (ahem) but Children of Men still seems like the product of a bygone era.
20 years into a grey British future: the population is sterile and extinction of the human race is inevitable. Alcoholic public servant Clive Owen is persuaded by ex-girlfriend and freedom-fighter Julianne Moore to transport some precious cargo to the coast but her plan (and her team) is soon shredded by the forces of reaction and Owen is forced to go it alone. There are several absolutely jaw-dropping set-pieces and I wonder whether the people of Bexhill realised what sort of mess was going to be made of their quiet little seaside town. Never lend anything to a film crew!
This week’s Capital Times cinema review (published 18 October), featuring Out of the Blue (Robert Sarkies); Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris) and Junebug (Phil Morrison). Updated.