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.
Welcome to the 2010 “cut out and keep” guide to video renting (or downloading or however you consume your home entertainment these days). I suggest you clip this article, fold it up, stick it in your wallet or purse and refer to it whenever you are at the video shop, looking for something to while away the long winter evenings of 2010.
First up, the ones to buy – the Keepers. These are the films that (if you share my psychology and some of my pathologies) you will cherish until you are old and the technology to play them no longer exists. Best film of the year remains Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. Mashing together several archetypal stories with a vivid visual style and a percussive energy, Slumdog may not represent India as it actually is but instead successfully evoked what India feels like, which is arguably more important. After Slumdog everything I saw seemed, you know, old-fashioned and nothing has been anywhere nearly as thrilling since. There are films you respect, films you admire and films you love. Slumdog is a film you adore. “Who wants to be a … miyonaire?” indeed.
If you are on the look out for an intelligent, serious and impressively well-made drama that will stimulate and move you (and of course you are, or you wouldn’t be reading this) then The Reader will fit your bill perfectly. The last of the big Oscar contenders to hit our shores, this is a version of the best-selling novel which put the German struggle to come to terms with the crimes of the Nazis centre stage. The adaptation (by British playwright and screenwriter David Hare) also does this but something else as well – it becomes a meditation on all kinds of guilt and shame as well as the complex interaction between the two.
In 1958, schoolboy Michael Berg falls ill and is helped by a stranger (the extraordinary Kate Winslet). After his recovery, three months later, he returns to thank her and they begin an affair that lasts the final summer of his childhood. Between bouts of lovemaking she demands he read to her, telling her the stories and plays he is studying at school. Several months later she disappears, breaking poor Michael’s heart, only to return to his life eight years later in a Berlin courtroom, on trial for war crimes.
Clint Eastwood has been on our screens for over 50 years and at 78 years old he has decided to call it a day and his valedictory performance in Gran Torino is completely worthy of the man. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a working class widower living on a suburban Detroit street, one of the few original residents still around as the neighbourhood fills up with Hmong immigrants. In a gang initiation his teenage neighbour Thao tries to steal Walt’s beloved 1972 Gran Torino (a car he helped build on the Ford assembly line) and, as penance, the kid is forced to work for Walt over the summer. They get to know each other – and the threat from the Hmong gang-bangers who now have an axe to grind with Walt as well as Thao and his family.
Since I took this gig back in September I have seen every film commercially released in Wellington (except for a few Bollywood efforts) and there have been some clunkers, but this week is so bereft of quality that I fear I may need to develop eyes of leather to get through next week.
We kick-off with Eragon, a sort of boy-band version of Tolkien that’s not so much sub-Jacksonian as subterranean. In the supposedly distant past the verdant lands of Elbonia, sorry, Alagaesia were protected by Dragon Riders (these are men who ride dragons, bear with me). Before the film starts one of the Dragon Riders turns evil, kills all the others and declares himself King. The people of Discombobula, sorry, Alagaesia are miserable and subjugated, etc. and stories of the Dragon Riders begin to fade in to memory. That is until a good-looking young farm boy finds an egg that hatches in to a dragon with the voice of Rachel Weisz. Bad King Galbatorix, in a performance phoned in by John Malkovich, has to kill the boy and the dragon or all his dreams of perpetual Alagaesia-domination may fade and die.
Weisz and Malkovich aren’t the only names slumming it in Eragon: Robert Carlyle’s Durza isn’t nearly as scary as his Begbie from Trainspotting, Devonshire soul diva Joss Stone does a very strange turn as a fortune teller, but Jeremy Irons has enough gumption about him that might have made him a decent action hero if he hadn’t specialised in playing effete European intellectuals about 30 years ago.
I realise that, as a seeker of quality, I’m a long way from being the target market for Eragon but it really is an enormous bunch of arse. My two favourite moments: learning that the director is called Fangmeier (perfect) and working out that Alagaesia rhymes with cheesier.
The perfectly named Duff sisters (Hilary and, you know, the other one) get a showcase for their meagre talents in Material Girls, a sub-teen morality tale about two rich sisters who lose all their money when their family cosmetics empire collapses due to greedy, cheating adults.
In the end Material Girls is an affable hour and a bit that failed to stop the youngsters at Queensgate from running up and down the aisles and making a general nuisance of themselves.
Material Girls aims so low that it’s hard to hate – unlike Nancy Meyer’s The Holiday which I felt personally insulted by. In this “romantic” “comedy”, Cameron Diaz plays a Los Angeles movie trailer editor who swaps houses with depressed English journalist Kate Winslet for a Christmas holiday mutually distant from the men who have broken their hearts. Diaz finds herself in picture postcard snowy Surrey and Winslet gets the run of Diaz’s Hollywood mansion. Within 12 hours both women meet their perfect man and faith in love and romance is, of course, restored.
In Winslet’s case that restoration is helped by a former screenwriter played with admirable alive-ness by 91 year-old Eli Wallach, who gives her a list of classic films of the past to watch. The Holiday thinks it is honouring these great examples of the art – at one point Winslet and Jack Black watch Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday – when frankly it isn’t fit to shine their shoes. Dreadful and lazy on almost every level possible.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 20 December, 2006.