I’m not normally one to make box office predictions but I have a gut feeling that The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls is going to be massive. It’s an inspiring New Zealand story, well told with plenty of humour and music, and the literally irrepressible Topps’ lust for life shines like a beacon throughout. Using plenty of archival footage and photos, Leanne Pooley’s documentary follows the Twins from idyllic rural Calf Club Days, through the rough and tumble protests of the 80s, to their current status as living legends.
I recommend you take your kids so they can see how much of what’s good about New Zealand (that we take for granted) was fought for by these strong and principled women, who also just happen to be beloved family entertainers.
Keira Knightley may only be 23 but (along with Daniel Craig and Simon Pegg) she’s been given the unenviable job of saving the British film industry, a challenging task for someone with talent but a hard road for a young woman still learning a craft for which she often seems ill-suited. Next week we will review the mid-budget costume drama The Duchess but right now she is headlining another WWII romance (c.f. Atonement), John Maybury’s The Edge of Love.
Knightley plays Vera Phillips, a young Welsh girl carving out a living entertaining the troops in the underground bomb shelters of burnt out London. In an awfully clunky screenwriting moment she sees a familiar face across a crowded pub and calls out “Dylan? Dylan Thomas?” and is reunited with her childhood sweetheart. After plenty of flirting, the soon-to-be great poet Thomas (Matthew Rhys) introduces her to his wife Caitlin (Sienna Miller) and a firm friendship begins, a friendship that veers in the direction of a (hinted at) ménage à trois and ends (with the help of Phillips’ shell-shocked husband Cillian Murphy) in a hail of misdirected bullets on a picturesque Welsh cliff top.
Miller’s notorious tabloid existence has a tendency to overshadow her day job, which is a shame as she is very good here and she carries almost all the emotional weight of a film that, frankly, needs all the help it can get. Rhys is fine (and reads the Thomas poetry like he’s channelling Richard Burton) but Knightley struggles, although she has her moments.
In The Orphanage, a woman (Belén Rueda) and her husband (Fernando Cayo) decide to buy the decaying old gothic orphanage where she grew up so they can live there with their adopted, HIV-positive, young son (Roger Princep) plus his imaginary friends. Asking for trouble? You bet. The boy soon disappears, perhaps into a cave beneath the house, and the distraught mother has to solve the mystery of the cursed house before she can find him again.
I would have been considerably more effected by this film if the first half hadn’t been out of focus (and if the projectionist hadn’t forgotten about the reel change or needed to be told to focus the second half) but once we’d got all that sorted out the moody atmospherics (greatly aided by an effective surround sound design and the excellent Paramount sound system) push all the right buttons. Produced by Guilermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), The Orphanage is stylish horror with a heart. I much prefer this sort of thing to the Japanese productionline versions we see so often.
It’s really saying something when a director disowns a Vin Diesel film for not living up to his vision but this is what Mathieu Kassovitz has done with Babylon A.D. Apparently studio-dictated cuts have turned his subtle and sensitive political and moral allegory into a bloodthirsty shoot ’em up. As they saying goes, yeah right. Freely ripping off dozens of hit films (from Escape from New York to Blade Runner, The Matrix and Resident Evil), the cuts have rendered what might have been a campy classic into incoherence but it’s not un-entertaining.
My favourite cinematic shark is Bruce from Finding Nemo (played by Barry Humphries), a misunderstood killing machine with abandonment issues. If he’d seen Rob Stewart’s enervating documentary Sharkwater he would know that he’s not a killer at all – more people die each year as a result of Coke machine misadventure – and that he is in far greater peril from us than the other way around.
In fact the whole film owes a lot to Pixar’s Nemo, often recreating famous images from that film and, if it wasn’t likely to traumatise them, I’d recommend every child who ever saw Nemo be forced to sit and watch it so they might turn into passionate eco-terrorists when they grow up.
As agit-prop doco makers go I think I prefer Morgan Spurlock to Michael Moore. Spurlock (who sprang to fame with the McDonalds’ exposé Super Size Me in 2004) interviews people without setting them up to look stupid or venal and his everyman open-ness gives the impression that he is genuinely curious rather than embittered and certain. In Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? Spurlock is spurred by the his long- suffering girlfriend Alex’s pregnancy to go the middle east and find out why they want to kill us all. And if he finds Osama Bin Laden in the process, all well and good. I could have done with less of the cheesy video game analysis of complex global politics but when Spurlock goes out of his way to meet ordinary people on the streets of Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, Pakistan and Afghanistan you can’t help but feel a little bit enlightened and a little bit heartened.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 8 October, 2008.
Nothing of note to report regarding screening conditions except the problems with The Orphanage that have already been reported above.
UPDATE: A friend wrote to me after reading the Sharkwater review in the CT:
“I don’t think much of your Sharkwater review. It really doesn’t tell anyone what the film is about and why people should see it, and secondly you totally belittle the issue by comparing it to a kids cartoon! It’s the most disturbing film I’ve seen all year, and as you know I’ve seen quite a lot. Even now I feel utterly guilty eating fish, though it is the only animal flesh I can’t seem to give up. At least the Lumiere reviewer urged people to boycott the many Wellington restaurants that serve shark fin soup. The director is slightly irritating I admit, but the content is crucial… you can’t joke about films like this, unless it’s garbage (like Where in the World is OBL for example…).
Back in the 70s, when I was about 8 years old, I watched a film on TV called Silent Running. In it Bruce Dern and three little robots tended the remains of Earth’s plant life on a giant greenhouse spaceship floating somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. I cried so much at the shocking ending (which had lonely robot Dewey, tending the forest with a battered watering can while the last of Earth’s flora drifted toward the edge of the solar system) that I don’t think I’ve ever been the same again. Last year, I rented the DVD to see if it had the same effect more than 30 years later and, sure enough, I dissolved on cue. Remarkable.
Pixar’s new animated triumph WALL•E owes a great deal to Silent Running, not least it’s dystopic view of human-planet interaction but also the faith in the healing power of anthropomorphic cuboid robots. WALL•E is the last functioning maintenance robot on an abandoned Earth, tidying up the enormous mountains of garbage left behind 700 years previously by the cowardly human population who ran for the stars. Lonely, without really knowing what lonely means, our hero meets EVE, a brilliant (as in shiny) search robot looking for signs of organic life. When she discovers some, and leaves to report back, WALL•E hitches a ride and ultimately finds himself saving civilisation.
It was perhaps a little too long for the restless pre-schoolers I shared a screening with, but for anyone and everyone else I whole-heartedly recommend it. And it won’t make you cry so much you throw up.
Regular readers will know that I have been quite the cheerleader for the new digital 3D technology (the U2 concert was stunning). Sadly, the first “live action” film to be produced using the process, Journey to the Centre of the Earth 3D, is still more of a side-show stunt than a test of the artistic potential of the technology. Brendan Fraser plays a geologist whose brother was lost on an exploration in some Icelandic caves and when he discovers secret coded notes in his brother’s dog-eared copy of the Jules Verne book, he decides to recreate the expedition, taking his nephew (plus last week’s CT cover girl Anita Briem) along for the ride.
Alister Barry is one of Wellington’s living treasures. His meticulously researched documentaries (including Someone Else’s Country and In a Land of Plenty) have successfully shone a light on the political and economic changes in New Zealand since the ‘new right’ transformation of the mid-80s in a way that nobody in the mainstream media has even attempted. His new film is based on Nicky Hager’s explosive exposé of shoddy National Party campaigning, The Hollow Men, and it’s interesting to me that the real-life footage of Don Brash presents a considerably less sympathetic portrait of the man than Stephen Papps’ excellent performance in the stage version at BATS. The leaked emails from Hager’s book revealed so many shenanigans that it’s hard to keep the story straight but Barry does a good job of emphasising that it is essentially the same team running National this time around.
I was lucky enough to preview the gorgeous BBC nature documentary, Earth, at the Embassy during the Festival and I’m pleased to see it return there for a short season. Unlike the tedious and repetitive ice doco The White Planet, this film uses the whole planet as a canvas for some marvellous images and, like WALL•E, the message is that we are stuffing it up at an alarming rate. Only the cutest animals and most colourful plants got through the auditions and Patrick Stewart plays the Morgan Freeman part as narrator.
After dismal experiences with Will Ferrell’s recent ice-skating and basketball films I wasn’t looking forward to Step Brothers, a low brow reunitement (new word!) with Talladega Nights co-star John C. Reilly, but blow me down I really enjoyed it! Ferrell and Reilly play two 40-year-old men, living at home, whose solo parents meet and marry each other, making them, you guessed it Step Brothers. It’s a 90 minute riff on one joke but you have to admire their total commitment to it.
Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging was made for teenage girls and I (despite my best efforts) am not one but, even though I lack the required cultural filters, I can’t understand why teenage girls would want to be portrayed as such shallow, tedious, screeching harpies. Boys, make-up, boys, the right kind of underwear, boys again. If these are our future leaders then I despair. Crikey, was Helen Clark like this when she was 14?
Profound, sensitive, emotionally arduous and perfectly structured, 4 Months follows a day in the life of student Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) as she selflessly tries to organise an abortion for her light headed friend Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), while fending off the attentions of family and boyfriend. As close to perfect as makes no difference.
Printed (for the most part) in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 24 September, 2008. Except for Earth, Step Brothers, Angus, Thongs, etc. and 4 Months which were cut for space.