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.
If I had to use a four letter word starting in ‘S’ and ending in ‘T’ to describe the new Angelina Jolie thriller, Salt wouldn’t be the first word I would think of. The last time Ms Jolie played an action heroine she was a weaver/assassin receiving her orders from a magic loom and her new film is only slightly less ridiculous. What we have here is an unimaginative reboot of old Cold War ideas, as if the script was found in someone’s draw and all they’ve done is blow the dust off it.
Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA spook on the Russian desk. When we meet her she’s in her underwear being tortured by the North Koreans. A spy-swap gets her out even though, according to the rules, she should’ve been left to her fate. Back in Washington, she’s married to the world’s expert on spiders (he studies them in jars at the kitchen table) but he’s German so obviously not above suspicion.
One of the first films I reviewed when I started here was an charming documentary called Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey in which Canadian fans Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen travelled the world talking to other fans (and the stars they worship) about what it is that makes metal great. In that film they interviewed Iron Maiden’s vocalist Bruce Dickinson and they must have made a decent impression as Maiden (and EMI) have given them a decent budget and loads of access for them to document their Somewhere Back in Time tour (around the world last year).
And what a wheeze the tour turned out to be. Chartering a 757 from Dickinson’s other employer, taking half the seats out so the gear and set could fit, flying the whole show between gigs with Dickinson piloting the whole time — a bunch of pasty middle-aged English lads having the time of their lives across half the world. The only real drama comes when drummer Nicko McBrain gets hit on the wrist by a golf ball, but it doesn’t matter because the joy of seeing a band really moving audiences (in places like Mumbai and Costa Rica) is the reason for this film to exist. And this film rises above above other recent great rock movies like U2-3D and Shine a Light — because it’s about the fans as well as the band and it recognises the complex interdependence of the relationship.
W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel The Painted Veil has been given a handsome new adaptation by Australian director John Curran (We Don’t Live Here Anymore). Naomi Watts takes on the role of naïve young Kitty Fane (once portrayed by legendary Greta Garbo) who marries dour Scottish scientist Walter (Edward Norton) and travels to China to escape her overbearing parents. But she indulges in a foolish affair with handsome Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber) and Walter insists that she accompany him to the cholera-ridden interior as punishment. While Walter tries to save the lives of the locals by cleaning up their water supply, Kitty discovers herself via the local convent and an unlikely Diana Rigg. A fine film (with an award-winning score butchered by a faulty digital soundtrack at the screening I saw), the images are ravishing, the performances are uniformly excellent and you could do a lot worse on a wet weekend.
After loathing last year’s Meet the Spartans and cursing it’s predecessor Epic Movie, it was with a heavy heart that I took my seat for Superhero Movie, another parody pot-pourri. One name in the credits lifted my spirits a little (no, not Pamela Anderson): David Zucker, director of Top Secret!, Airplane and The Naked Gun. As it turns out the few funny moments in the film are gags that could have come straight from those earlier films (“Fruit cake?” “No, I’ve just never met the right woman”) but the rest is a repetitive waste of time. Why bother parodying films that are essentially only parodies themselves?
Talking of repetitive, I got an odd sense of déjà vu during Superhero Movie before I realised that Dragonfly’s love interest Jill Johnson was being played by someone called Sara Paxton who had also been the villain in Sydney White not two hours before. It’s an odd item, Sydney White: the Snow White fairy tale re-located to College and starring Amanda Bynes (She’s The Man) as a working class tomboy trying to get into a snooty sorority. Kicked out in disgrace, she has to shack up with the seven dorks next door (each dork is a re-imagining one of Disney’s original dwarfs — can you name them all?) and then bring the school together under an Obama-like banner of inclusiveness, at the same time finding her own Prince Charming (who even manages to wake her with a kiss). Strangely watchable.
Sadly, I couldn’t bring myself to believe in any of Four Minutes, from the unlikely teenage piano-prodigy / murderess combo (Hannah Herzprung) or the bitter old lesbian prison piano teacher (Monica Bleibtrau), or the opera loving but brutish prison guard (Sven Pippig). I wish I could have watched it with the subtitles turned off so that I could enjoy the music and art director Silke Buhr’s amazing sense of texture and architectural environment. Every location has an almost tactile quality, from the decaying brick prison to the gilt Opera House at the climax. I was particularly taken with a concrete neo-brutalist concert hall reminiscent of Wellington’s beloved Hannah Playhouse.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday April 30, 2008.
Nature of Conflict: Four Minutes is released in New Zealand by Arkles Entertainment who pay me to work for them on occasion.