Following the surprise success of Second Hand Wedding in 2008, screenwriter Nick Ward and director Paul Murphy have been given a vastly improved budget and access to two international stars and told to make lightning strike twice.
The stars of Love Birds just happen to be the two fussiest actors in the world, Sally Hawkins (Golden Globe winner for Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky) and TV comic Rhys Darby, and when the two of them start fidgeting and stammering it feels like you are in for a long night. Luckily, both have their still-er moments and at those times you can see that Darby has real potential as a big screen romantic lead.
Turkish-German director Fatih Akin has long been an arthouse favourite around these parts. Head-On (2004) and The Edge of Heaven (2007) were Festival successes so it was odd to see his new film Soul Kitchen skip this year’s event and go straight to general release. On viewing it’s easy to see why. Akin has gone commercial and Soul Kitchen is as broad a comedy as you’ll find outside the big chains – sadly I have to report that Akin’s film doesn’t sit comfortably in that territory.
Zinos (Adam Bousdoukos) runs a greasy spoon café called the Soul Kitchen in a rundown part of old Hamburg. He’s not much of a cook or a businessman but his loyal customers seem to like it. Thrown into a tizzy by a combination of his girlfriend’s move to China, a very bad back, the tax department, his deadbeat brother (Moritz Bleibtreu) on day release from prison and an old school friend with an eye on his real estate, Zinos tries to navigate his way through a rapidly deteriorating situation with only a genius new chef and some loyal but easily distracted staff.
Ah, the perils of reviewing New Zealand cinema in New Zealand – or even tougher – Wellington cinema in Wellington. How does one approach a film that was executive produced by a former mentor, stars former workmates and drinking buddies, was written by a pal, and features familiar faces in almost every scene (and that this reviewer in a moment of flu-addled weakness even auditioned for)?
Luckily for me, Paul Murphy’s Second Hand Wedding makes it easy to avoid trespassing across the sensibilities of chums and colleagues by being an adorable confection, easy to praise and a pleasure to recommend. The moment you see a little yellow mini screaming around the Kapiti coast (director Paul Murphy’s father Geoff was responsible for Goodbye Pork Pie with Exec Kerry Robins back in 1981) you know you are in good hands and so it proves.
Geraldine Brophy plays Jill Rose, Kapiti’s top garage sale expert. Every Saturday morning you’ll find her (and best mate Muffy broadly played by Tina Regtien) trawling the nick-nacks looking for bargains. Long-suffering hubby Brian (a lovely and understated performance by Patrick Wilson) puts up with all the new paraphernalia because he has his own collection to maintain: all the pieces of a Model T Ford that will one day become a complete car again.
Local mechanic Stew (a performance by Ryan O’Kane that is, perhaps, lacking in detail) has proposed to the Rose’s daughter Cheryl (Holly Shanahan) but, afraid of the bargain basement wedding she fears her mother will provide, she keeps it a secret. When the news breaks, poor Jill is devastated but another tragedy forces the family (and the community) to pull together once again. There’s lots to love about Second Hand Wedding: music by Plan 9 and some songs I wouldn’t mind owning; classy editing particularly in the montages; perfect, witty production design by Brad Mill; but the heart and soul of the film is Brophy’s beautiful and measured performance. If she’s not at the front of the queue when the acting awards are handed out for this year I will be very surprised. Indeed, in this reviewer’s opinion it may be one the five best New Zealand screen performances ever.
It’s slightly depressing to report that a no-budget kiwi comedy contains more subtlety and subtext in any given scene than a multi-million dollar Hollywood blockbuster wrangles in its entirety but it’s true. In What Happens in Vegas… Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz play a couple who meet in Las Vegas on their own individual rebound tours, get hopelessly drunk and hopelessly married on the same night, win $3m on the slots and then try and (with the help of scheming best friends Rob Corddry and Lake Bell) cheat the other out of the booty. Forced by grim Judge Whopper (Dennis Miller) to co-habit for 6 months to prove their marriage is real before he will grant them a divorce, our couple do everything in their power to make each other miserable and much (potential but for the most part unrealised) hilarity ensues.
The problem isn’t with the fitfully amusing leads (though Kutcher in particular appears incapable of playing the deeper notes that father Treat Williams’ paternal disapproval offers him), the film suffers hugely because the script insists on treating us like retards and loudly declaiming everything that it has to say. At one point Kutcher spikes Diaz’s smoothy with ecstacy to the sound of “I Want a New Drug”. Oh, please. Everything is just so flippin’ obvious. Characters say exactly what is in their heads, or exactly what they need to say to move the plot forward, usually both at the same time.
And finally, What Happens in Vegas… should be cursed for indulging in yet another example of Hollywood racism: the only character of colour in the film is a terrible, tight-ass Asian stereotype who is ridiculed relentlessly and mean-ly.