When I first visited this country back in 1982 we flew across the Pacific Ocean in daylight and from my window seat I got a birds eye view of … not very much. Lots of flat blue uninterrupted sea, not even so much a rusty tramp steamer to break the monotony. No wonder they usually do this leg in the dark, I thought.
Once I got here I understood that there was a lot going on down there on many tiny speckled islands and atolls – and the richness of the Pacific and its relationship to New Zealand was just one of the reasons why I’m still here all these years later – but now the creeping specter of global warming is transforming the Pacific into the pristine environment I thought I saw all those years ago – unsullied by coral, sand, taro or people.
This process is already well under way as Briar March’s astounding documentary There Once was an Island illustrates. In 2006 Ms. March and a tiny crew spent several months on Takuu, a remote atoll overseen by the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG), serviced and supported by a rare and irregular shipping service and short wave radio. Even then the waves were lapping at the edge of peoples’ homes and the ABG offer of a haven among the mainland sugar plantations effectively meant asking 4000 people to say goodbye to their entire way of life.
The theme for the week seems to be romance and some of the finest love stories of recent (or in fact any) year have just made their way to our screens. Firstly, The Young Victoria where Emily Blunt (Sunshine Cleaning, The Devil Wears Prada) deservedly takes centre stage for the first time as the eponymous royal. Even reviewers are entitled to a little prejudice, and I wasn’t expecting much from this going in, but I left the cinema full of admiration for an intelligent script, perfectly-pitched direction and consistently able performances from expected and unexpected quarters.
Blunt’s Victoria is a headstrong teenager, frustrated by the competing political interests that push and pull her. Only Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (whose suit was instigated by yet more euro-intrigue) seems to see the real Victoria and offers the new Queen support and independence. The relationship between Blunt’s Victoria and Rupert Friend’s initially nervous but ultimately self-assured Albert is charming, natural and moving and the background of political intrigue and machinations provide necessary (but not overwhelming) context. The Young Victoria is a film that, and I hope this makes sense, is perfectly balanced.
This week I’ve had my intelligence insulted by the very best. Steven Spielberg is credited as Executive Producer of Eagle Eye, but if he spent more than one meeting overseeing this crapitude I would be very surprised. Eagle Eye is designed to appeal to cro-magnons who still believe that computers are inherently malevolent self-perpetuating pseudo-organisms and that the US Dept of Defence would invent an all-powerful, surveillance super-computer that you can’t switch off at the wall. And fans of Shia LaBoeuf. Director D. J. Caruso (last year’s Disturbia) is confirmed as a name to avoid and Michael Jackson lookalike Michelle Monaghan has done (and will do) better than this (Gone Baby Gone).
In interviews, Rainn Wilson (Dwight Schrute in the American “Office”) has admitted that he is behind Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Jack Black, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson whenever the choicest scripts are handed out, so what that says about The Rocker (his first leading role) I’m not sure. Wilson plays a Pete Best-like drummer, fired from the band he named (Vesuvius!) just before they shot to stardom in 1988. Twenty years and twenty dead-end jobs later, he gets a shot at redemption playing with his nephew’s high school band. Wilson really doesn’t have enough presence to carry the film but he’s likeable enough and there’s some nice supporting work from Jeff Garlin (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) and the lovely Christina Applegate (who really deserves to be a much bigger star than she is).
One week on from the depressing Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging, there’s even more misplaced girl power on display in The House Bunny. Scary Movie star Anna Faris gets to executive produce a vehicle for herself (written by Laurie Craig and Karen McCullah Lutz, the female screenwriting duo responsible for the possibly Nobel Prize-winning Legally Blonde) and with that power comes great responsibility, responsibility that she puts to good use setting back the cause of feminism nearly 40 years.
Almost-Playmate Shelley (Faris), kicked out of Hef’s mansion for being too old becomes sorority house mother to a bunch of “ugly” misfits (including Emma Stone from The Rocker and Bruce Willis and Demi Moore’s eldest daughter Rumer). It’s the lack of ambition that I find so disheartening, although it did contain my favourite line of the week: “Concentrate on the eyes girls, remember – the eyes are the nipples of the face.”
Roald Dahl’s daughter Lucy is another female screenwriter stuck in cliché hell. Her script for Wild Child could have resulted in passable entertainment, but is let down by poor direction and some odd post-production decisions. Last year’s Nancy Drew, Emma Roberts, plays the fish out of water, Malibu rich-chick, sent away to an English boarding school run by firm-but-fair Natasha Richardson. There she makes friends and enemies and falls in love with handsome Roddy, played by the worst actor I’ve ever seen get his name on a major film: Alex Pettyfer (remember the name, folks).
Most fun of the week can be found in Space Chimps, a boisterous CGI-animated comedy for kids (and those that might find WALL•E a little too emotionally demanding). Ripping a long at a great pace, it has plenty of gags per minute and benefits from having great voice-actors like Patrick Warburton and Kristin Chenoweth involved rather than big name stars slumming it. Recommended.
The Russo-Sino-Co-pro Mongol really deserves to be seen on a giant screen, as befitting the giant landscape and giant story. The first of a proposed trilogy telling the life story of Genghis Khan, this instalment follows the 12th century warlord from his own birth to the birth of an empire spanning half the known world. Uniting the tribes of Mongolia was a brutal business and there’s plenty of CGI blood splashing around as young Temudjin (Tadanobu Asano) discovers his destiny.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday, 1 October 2008.
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.