Oliver Stone directed his first feature film in 1974 (Seizure) so I’m going to be charitable and assume that the clunky construction of the scenes in his new film, Savages, is deliberate. I imagine that with all his experience, it would be easier to make shots match than to be as sloppy as they appear here. Perhaps it’s a heavy-handed reference to being stoned, seeing as the film is about big time California cannabis growers being targeted for takeover by a Mexican cartel. Or perhaps not.
Bright young things Aaron Johnson (John Lennon in Nowhere Boy) and Taylor Kitsch play the partners in a medical marijuana business that makes its real money by illegally exporting the high grade product across state lines. Johnson is the brains and Kitsch is Iraq and Afghanistan veteran muscle. As an aside, Kitsch must be wondering what he has to do to get a hit. Three big films this year and they have all been duds – John Carter, Battleship and this. It’s not his fault – he’s been decent in all of them, particularly so in this – but I’m sure he’s running out of Friday Night Lights credit with the studios. Johnson, on the other hand, once again fails to mine much depth from his character.
In October 1975, the obscure little Portuguese colony of East Timor was given independence after 400 years of European rule. A mixed Melanesian/Polynesian population was sitting on rich mineral and fossil fuel potential and surrounded on three sides by the region’s powerhouse, Indonesia (with Australia to the south). After only nine days of independence, Indonesia invaded in one of the most cynical and brutal land grabs in modern history.
The Indonesian armed forces, knowing that an invasion was a gross breach of international law, wore plain clothes and did everything they could to extinguish evidence and witnesses. The most celebrated victims of the atrocity were the Balibo 5, young Australian television journalists who were stranded in the border town of Balibo as the invasion began. Without the benefit of modern-day communications, they simply disappeared and the Australian government, who (along with the US) gave tacit approval to the entire horrible exercise.
One of the Film Society highlights in recent years was the special screening (on lustrous 35mm) of the 70s classic thriller The Taking of Pelham One Two Three about the hijacking of a New York subway train. It was a wonderful experience for many different reasons – a cynical love letter to a decrepit, bankrupt and graffiti-covered city; an ordinary guy hero that audiences these days would never be allowed to accept (played by grizzled old Walter Matthau) and Robert Shaw (from Jaws and The Sting) chewing the scenery as the villain holding a city to ransom.
Thus my heart sank when the remake was announced, particularly the choice of stylist (over substance) Tony Scott as director. His recent films like Domino and Déjà Vu have been full of music video fanciness, giving his actors no room to breathe – he’s the Scott you get when you can’t have his brother Ridley.
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 is, of course, completely brilliant. And loud. And while it’s not quite as perfect as predecessor (and cinema re-definer) Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz is as entertaining a night out as you’ll find anywhere.
Co-creator Simon Pegg plays PC Nicholas Angel, top cop, so good he’s making the rest of the Met look bad. He’s reassigned to the sleepy west country village of Sandford where, apart from a one-swan crime-spree, the peace is never breached. Of course, in a picturesque English village nothing is what it seems and Angel and partner Danny Butterman (Nick Frost) are going to bust this thing wide open, whatever “it” might actually be.