Feel like visiting somewhere new but don’t have the time or money right now? A film festival is the next best thing. If you want to understand a country and its culture it’s hard to go past watching their commercial cinema – their multiplex and blockbuster fare rather than the arthouse.
That’s why the regional film festivals are so important – and the Italian Film Festival is king with attendance numbers every year that are greater than all the other regional festivals put together. Festival director Tony Lambert has been at this for over a dozen years and his formula works – a well-constructed survey of the current Italian cinema featuring broad comedies, romances and historical dramas. These are the films that Italians have been watching.
This year’s festival opens at the Paramount on the 9th of October with a gala screening of Welcome to the North (a sequel to the 2010 smash hit Welcome to the South, itself a remake of the French comedy Welcome to the Sticks). After that we have two and a half weeks of screenings with most films playing four or five times.
While thousands of protestors gather in Manhattan to “Occupy Wall St”, the European economy teeters on the brink of collapse, unemployment across the developed world grows and several Pacific island nations report shortages of drinking water due to climate change, here in New Zealand we continue to party like it’s 1987 and at the pictures for the school holidays we have the most blatant and desperate examples of corporatist “entertainment” I’ve ever seen lined up together. Is this the cinema equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns?
In The Smurfs the mega-sized Sony corporation makes sure that its name and products are never very far from the centre of the screen, rendering the lumpy end product utterly charmless. In Real Steel the product placement is more like product bombardment. Nothing goes without a logo – from Hugh Jackman’s sunglasses to HP (or are they still known as Hewlett-Packard?) spending thousands of dollars to promote products they don’t even make anymore. Meanwhile, the spies in Spy Kids 4 all use Apple products – although for the most part they are pretending to be something other than computers and iPads.
Johnny English Reborn even goes so far as to make a joke out of its dependency on the rapidly declining corporate dollar – English’s beloved MI7 has changed it’s name to Toshiba MI7 while he was on an enforced sabbatical. Whether the presence of a sensuously photographed (and glowingly described) Rolls Royce will prompt the average audience member to trade in their fifteen-year-old Mazdas is neither here nor there. The fact remains that if you send your kids to the pictures this holidays they will be indoctrinated more than any generation before them.
But are the films any good? Actually, yes, a couple of them are OK. I’m a big fan of Robert Rodriguez and his ability to alternately churn out grown-up pulp like Machete and family-friendly fare like Shorts. His Troublemaker Studios in Austin knows how to make things look good (enough) on modest budgets and Rodriguez’ relentlessly inventive imagination keeps everything lively and fun. I thought Spy Kids 4 was endearing and it managed to deliver a good message along with the thrills and spills.
After a week when New Zealand has been forced to confront its own intolerance and social myopia it seems fitting that two films that are essentially about understanding and accepting diversity should arrive in cinemas in the same week. They both take drastically different approaches to the topic, too.
In Dinner for Schmucks, ambitious hedge fund analyst Paul Rudd has to find a guest to take to a monthly senior management party in which unusual people are secretly held up to ridicule. When his Porsche knocks over mild mannered public servant and amateur taxidermist Steve Carell he thinks he’s found the right man. But Carell’s character, Barry, latches on to him causing mayhem wherever he goes.
Eventually, after Rudd’s relationship and career are wrecked, they both reach a deeper understanding of each other and some decent human values: laughing with someone is ok. At someone? Not so much. And if you are anything like me, you will laugh.