Still hovering around some local cinemas — and the longest-delayed of all my outstanding reviews — Still Mine is a surprisingly effective Canadian drama about an elderly man (James Cromwell, 73 but playing a fit 89) determined to build a new house for his wife (Geneviéve Bujold) before her memory deserts her completely. Cromwell gives his character a softness which belies the usual ornery old dude clichés, even if his stubborn refusal to submit to the building code is the device on which the story hinges. Contains lots of shots of Cromwell’s heroic profile staring off into the New Brunswick distance.
Older people are, paradoxically, the only growing segment of the film audience in New Zealand so there’s often high quality fare around the tempt them. One of the best is the documentary Ping Pong, about competitors (genuine competitors at that) in the World Over 80s Table Tennis Championship in Inner Mongolia. Like any good documentary it assembles a great cast of characters and like all good sports movies it makes full use of the built-in drama of a knock-out tournament. Not just about the restorative power of exercise, it’s also about friendship and adventure. Inspiring, so help me.
No sounds like the kind of thing a toddler in the middle of a tantrum might say, while stomping around your lounge room at bedtime. At the cinema, though, the tantrum belongs to the corrupt dictatorship of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, forced through international pressure to let others play in his sandpit. In 1988 he announced a referendum that would demonstrate — by fair means or foul — that the people loved him, weren’t interested in democracy and that those who thought different were nothing but communists and terrorists.
15 years after he and his military junta overthrew the legitimate left-leaning government of Salvador Allende, the question in the referendum would be a simple one: “Yes” to keep the dictatorship and “No” for a return to free elections. No, Pablo Larraín’s brilliant movie, looks at the campaign from the perspective of an ad guy — a Mad Man — played by Gael García Bernal, who harnessed the latest corporate sales techniques and the power of television to change the direction of a nation.
After an intense weekend running from picture theatre to picture theatre between — and sometimes during — rain showers, I have now caught up on everything in current local release. Except Tinker Bell and the Secret of the Wings but a Twitter correspondent assures me: “Just FYI my 5 year old great niece loved it so much she stood up at the end clapping & dancing…you should go you’ll love it ;)” and that review might just have to do for now.
A little harder to track down than Tinker Bell, Madagascar 3 or Hotel Transylvania — but well worth the effort — is Arrietty, a Studio Ghibli animated adaptation of The Borrowers, Mary Norton’s famous children’s book about tiny people living under a house who are discovered by a frail young boy who needs a friend. Beautifully animated — as always — and told with emotion and simplicity, Arrietty is a fine alternative to those over-hyped Hollywood confections. The version playing in Wellington is the English voiced one featuring Saoirse Ronan, Olivia Colman and Mark Strong — much easier on the ears than the American voices and much easier to follow for the littlies than the original Japanese.
Despite my positive review for TT3D last week, I’m not a huge motorsport fan. In 1996 I worked on the last Nissan Mobil 500 race around the waterfront and couldn’t see the appeal of watching cars go belting around the same corner over and over again. In that race you couldn’t even tell who was winning, it was all such a blur. In fact, the only time I’ve ever watched Formula 1 was when I channel surfed on to some late night coverage one Sunday night in 1994 just before going to bed. Two corners (about 30 seconds) later, Ayrton Senna was dead. It was pretty freaky, let me tell you.
So, I knew (as all audiences must) that Asif Kapadia’s brilliant documentary Senna was going to end in tragedy. What I didn’t know was how riveting it was going to be from beginning to end. Senna works because it is first and foremost a portrait of a compelling character — a charismatic, confident but humble young man who understood the risks he took and fought to balance those risks with his innate desire to race and race hard — but when the politics of Formula 1 took the control of those risks out of his hands there you could see there was only going to be one result.
I fully intended to bring some intellectual acuity back to film commentary this week; maybe toss around terms like mise en scène and cognitive dissonance; maybe name drop Bresson and his thematic austerity and formal rigour. Then I saw little Kiwi battler, The Devil Dared Me To, a hand-made low-brow entertainment from the vodka and Becks-fuelled imaginations of Back of the Y’s Chris Stapp and Matt Heath, and I realised that high-falutin’ cinema theory was destined for the back burner for another week.
Stapp plays wannabe stunt hero Randy Campbell and Heath is his malevolent mentor Dick Johansonson. The Timaru Hellriders are about to collapse under the weight of invidious OSH attention and Dick’s lost nerve. Oily promoter Sheldon Snake (Dominic Bowden) bails them out so they can take on the North Island and get Campbell closer to his dream of being the first man to jump Cook Strait in a rocket car. Wildly uneven but often very, very, funny The Devil Dared Me To contains possibly the worst acting (and worst spelling) of any recent New Zealand film.
It’s entirely appropriate that The Devil has come out while we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of Roger Donaldson’s Sleeping Dogs; another back yard, oily rag feature with a similar larrikin approach towards the production process.
2007 has been a great year for good films but a poor year for great films; very little of what I’ve seen in 2007 belongs in the very top echelon. The most serious contender so far is Atonement, adapted from Ian McEwan’s novel about a lie told in innocence that has far reaching and terrible consequences.
In a blissfully beautiful British country house in the summer of 1935, precocious 13-year-old Briony Tallis (luminous Saoirse Ronan) is jealous of the attention her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) is getting from handsome Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) and impulsively accuses him of a terrible crime. The accusation tears the young lovers apart and leaves Briony consumed by a grievous guilt that she takes a lifetime to come to terms with. Virtually faultless.
I really wanted to give The Brave One the benefit of the doubt until its absurdity and consistently poor narrative choices overcame my resistance and I simply had to hate it. Jodie Foster plays mild-mannered Erica Bain, a radio producer in New York, engaged to handsome doctor Naveen Andrews from Lost. Walking the dog late one night the couple are brutally attacked by thugs leaving her badly beaten and the boyfriend dead. Overcome by fear and grief she buys a gun for protection but finds herself taking on a much more malevolent role. Terrence Howard is the good cop on her trail.
There’s nothing so objectionable on offer in Conversations With My Gardener, a French charmer starring the ubiquitous Daniel Auteuil as an artist returning to his family home in the country while his divorce goes through. He employs wily local Jean-Pierre Darroussin to knock him up a vegetable garden and, over the summer, the two embark on a friendship that involves (as is the way of things in French films) the simple local giving life lessons to the sophisticated townie.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 17 October, 2007.