Monday, September 27, 2010

Touched by the Moon

Mike Riddell is the writer of the Kiwi film The Insatiable Moon and his wife, Rosemary, is the director. Mike is an ex-Baptist minister and Rosemary is a judge.

I was meant to speak to both of them but blew it and ended up having a rambling chat with Mike in a coffee bar in Ponsonby, where the film is set.

Unlike most Kiwis Mike doesn't say "yeah" and, more like a Zen-Buddhist than a Baptist minister, he tends towards cheerfulness.

NS: According to Wikipedia...(laughter)'re a bit of a hippie.

MR: Ja, absolutely. I was part of the movement and sort of ended up following the drug trail all around the world and ended up in prison in Morocco.

NS: Wikipedia just says you travelled in North Africa... [raucous laughter] Is this what possibly led to some sort of spirituality?

MR: It's hard to know that. But I remember walking around the prison yard for a couple of hours a day and thinking about the meaning of life and all that sort of stuff. I was a real acid head, used a lot of LSD. I guess that was all part of the spiritual quest for me...

NS: And the hat?

MR: Partly because if I lift it I'm bald [cheerful laughter], but also partly it's a sort of a mark of identity. I'm just a hat person. For years I've had a huge collection of hats.

NS: How did you and Rosemary meet?

MR: We met in a flat in London in 1973/74 or something like that. We've been together for a long time. We've got three kids. Got married in 1975.

NS: Was she a lawyer then?

MR: No, we did all kinds of things. She started off doing home help stuff with aged people [a waitress brings him a cup of hot chocolate with two marshmallows]...nice stuff...but before she met me she'd been doing some professional acting stuff. She worked for TVNZ. And she kind of went to the UK to extend her acting career, but found it really tough over there. Then we had three children together, so it wasn't until later that she went to university and tried studying and she got really good results, so she tried law, became a lawyer, shifted to Dunedin, and became a partner in a law firm.

NS: Now she's a very talented director.

MR: [laughs] But the creative stuff has followed all the way through.

NS: Are you still based in Dunedin?

MR: No, we had to move to the Waikato. It's very difficult to be a judge in the town where you were in a law firm. We would never have moved from Dunedin otherwise. So we live in Cambridge now, on the outskirts of Hamilton.

NS: What's the title of the film all about?

MR: Well, it's the same as the book. In the book the moon plays a bigger role than it does in the film. It's much more prevalent. It's about the pulling power of the moon, not only with the tides but with human lives, particularly people's mental health and wellbeing.

NS: Hence lunacy.

MR: Ja, exactly. So it's about this moon that's constantly shifting people's lives around.

NS: Were all the moons in the film real?

MR: No, the big full moon was CGI. We spent a couple of nights trying to get it, but we couldn't.

NS: You mentioned that Rawiri [Paratene] insisted on playing the lead role?

MR: He claimed the role, ja. He read the novel while he was filming Whale Rider and wrote me a letter saying it would make a great film and he'd like to write the screenplay. So I said, "Well, I've already started on the screenplay. So he said, "All right, then I'm playing Arthur. No one else is playing Arthur." That was in 2002.

NS: The rest seemed to flow with that same kind of personal involvement.

MR: Ja, relationships have been at the heart of the film. Both the UK producer and I have always had a concern that the making of the film had to be in keeping with the story. It was always important to us.

NS: Just to go back a bit, did you become a Baptist minister after you and Rosemary got back from the UK?

MR: Ja, it was quite convoluted, really. I kind of drifted into Christianity with a bunch of hippie/druggie people. Then I wanted to do more studies. So I ended up going to the Baptist Theological College here in Auckland. But I got to the end of that and still had a lot of questions, so we went to Switzerland for two and a half years, where I did a postgraduate in theology, came back here for eight or nine years and was the minister of the Ponsonby Baptist Church.

NS: Which is where you met this Arthur character?

MR: Ja, that's right.

NS: I still find it quite a jump going from what you call an acid head to a Baptist minister...

MR: Ja, it was really...

NS: You didn't go the Timothy Leary or Allan Watts route.

MR: It could have easily [gone that way]...I've always been interested in all sorts of religious streaks. There was a strong Buddhist phase that I had...I mean, there were all sorts of influences, but as much as anything I think it depends on context and circumstances and where you happen to find yourself. But I was very much a fish out of water in the Baptist church.

NS: I would imagine so. [even more raucous laughter]

MR: The only way I survived was that the Ponsonby church gave me a very liberal hand...

NS: Has Ponsonby always been considered a "progressive" area?

MR: It was a slum, really. Freeman's Bay and Ponsonby were slums.

NS: Oh, when?

MR: Right up to the Sixties. It started off as working cottages...Irish immigrants...It was a bit of a Catholic area. Then it got gradually run down, lots of students, lots of psychiatric patients from Carrington, and then Pacific Islanders came and settled here. So it wasn't until the Eighties that it started changing.

NS: Now those cottages are worth a fortune.

MR: Exactly. In the novel, there's a lot about the changing nature of Ponsonby, its history.

NS: Back to the Christian theme, the film can't exactly be described as Christian. [yet more raucous laughter]

MR: Absolutely. We don't consider it a Christian film, as such, even though it's informed by a lot of Christian themes. We think it's a spiritual film and it appeals to people with a spiritual bent... It's funny, we showed it to a bunch of distributors in the UK and an American said we should edit the film so that it would suit the Bible belt, so we said we want all those Midwest Christians protesting outside the cinema! [laughter] That'll sell tickets for us.

NS: What is the law about mental patients?

MR: The boarding houses are run as a private operation. The manager owns them. But the patients get extra money according to their disability and that's how the manager makes a profit.

NS: But you do still have asylums?

MR: No, there's only respite. there are a few forensic wards if you are criminally insane, and there's compulsory treatment for very serious cases, but they are constantly under review and anytime a patient says "I want to get out," there has to be a hearing. But by and large the model is they've closed asylums down. There's now a model of so-called community care.

NS: The problem with that model is the paedophile in the story...

MR: Absolutely. We wanted to confront that problem head-on. That's the most controversial part of the film. It does kind of bring it out into the open, doesn't it? Instead of hiding it, allowing it to fester...

NS: You guys played with the idea of Margaret being pregnant?

MR: It was entirely intentional that it should remain ambiguous. We wanted it to be one of the things people might talk about afterwards. [We did]. There were all kinds of levels of ambiguity [and delicious contradictions]. Is Arthur insane or is he someone special? The book was a little more pushy about those issues.

NS: At one stage Margaret says there's an incredible gulf between them. She doesn't just mean as far as mental health is concerned. She also means culturally. She's a pakeha, he's a Maori.

MR: I've always been a believer in the local being the universal.

NS: Were you aware of the danger that you're using friends' money?

MR: That's what I thought was most risky; we knew all the people who'd invested. It's a huge responsibility.

NS: I constantly read about films being made here independently, but we never hear about 90% of them afterwards...

MR: I was aware of that all the way through. You try to spell it out for people, but they don't always understand what the risks are.

NS: Had you and Rosemary worked on anything else together?

MR: Ja, I produced her [award-winning] short and we also did a play together.

NS: Is there any reason why the New Zealand Film Commission hasn't put any money into the film?

MR: To be honest, I've never quite understood...All I know is they never resonated with the script early on, and from that point on they felt they needed to defend their point of view, even when we were getting very positive reactions to the script from other quarters, overseas. Ja, in many ways I think they've backed themselves into a corner. I don't think they ever thought there was a feature film in there. The astonishing thing to me is that they have seen the finished product and they still don't like it. They still think it is a film that won't travel...Our central values have always been story and performance. We were forced to shoot on 2K [as opposed to 4K] cameras, but audiences in my experience will forgive an awful lot of they're caught up in the story.

NS: Like that wonderful Oz film, The Castle, which was shot in 11 days.

MR: That's exactly right. Kelly Rogers, the head of Rialto distribution, says he sees it [The Insatiable Moon] as a kind of As It is In Heaven. It just kept on going. It had a life. But I really don't know about the Film Commission. We're still talking to them. What we're trying to say to them is that the more positive reaction we get, the more embarrassing it gets for you. You've got a chance to turn it around and make it positive.

NS: Did they put anything into post-production?

MR: They put $25 000 into post-prod, but that's only because policy says they have to. [laughter]

NS: So what has the reaction to the film been across New Zealand?

MR: Brilliant. We've done Q&A all over the place.

NS: I saw the two of you watched the film with us at the community centre the other night. How many times have you seen it? Aren't you sick of it yet?

MR: I've seen it about 70 or 80 times. I don't know. Rose and I talk about that. We quote it to each other. But we always get drawn into it, which is an encouraging sign. The other thing I enjoy about it is seeing how the audience reacts to it, how different audiences react to different parts.

NS: Where does it go next?

MR: We've got a UK distribution deal. It will release there early January.

NS: And what's next for you?

MR: I'm a kind of writer for hire. Just thrashing out a script for people who need one in a hurry. Then two others for international co-pros. And the guys who played the characters in the boarding house, they're keen to work together again, so we've put an idea up for a TV series.

NS: That's a fantastic idea.

MR: So we'll try to shoot a pilot for that next year.

NS: Can't you just show them the film? Surely it speak for itself?

MR: No. Things are pretty tight.

NS: I couldn't believe that Lee [played by Pete Tuson] was simply acting.

MR: He actually spent some time in South Africa. But he nearly lost the part because he's got a row of sparkling gold teeth, like Oddjob in the Bond movies, so we had to black those out. He's a lovely guy. He often drove all the way from Whangarei for two and a half hours to be on set at 6am.

NS: That's amazing...

MR: Great team of people. And of course Rawiri. He's always on the lookout for people on the margins...when it came to lunchtime he's always the guy at the back of the queue.

NS: I must say his construction of "heaven" in that motel room was very fast.

MR: [laughs loudly] It was, wasn't it! But the script I'm working on now will interest you. It's about the 1981 Springbok tour [that virtually divided New Zealand].

NS: You were one of the protesters there...

MR: Ja, and they want to shoot that by next year.

Neil Sonnekus

* Okay, so I'm publishing a day late. But I had paid work this week, and that was a real shock to the system. Things should return to normal going forward. Also, I see that the Rugby World Cup ad has been shortened and no longer features the Springboks. So you can see just how powerful a simple blog can be...

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Post-Workshop Postponement

Gentle Reader,

I have been on a screenwriter's workshop in Wellington and my head is spinning, so I'm moving the interview I was going to publish today to next Friday. This also takes us closer to the opening date of the relevant film, The Insatiable Moon, which is October 7.

I hope you have a fabulous weekend and week.

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Read, Pray, Love

The 2010 Citibank-Ubud Writers & Readers Festival runs from 6-10 October in Bali, and a more congenial south-east Asian literary gathering you would be hard pressed to find.

Part of this is down to Ubud's gorgeous setting, perched on a hilltop overlooking terraced rice paddies and tropical jungle hiding ancient, moss-covered temples. The town is Bali's cultural hub and a bit of a hippie chill-out zone, with more yoga, reiki and crystal-healing classes than you could shake an incense stick at.

More recently it's become a mecca for thirtysomething divorcees, all clutching tear-stained copies of the Elizabeth Gilbert bestseller Eat, Pray, Love (it's at Ubud where the author finds true love, after seeking spiritual guidance from a toothless medicine man).

This year, a host of leading writers from Louis de Bernieres and Anne Enright to Thomas Kennealy, Nam Le and Christos Tsolkias will be giving talks and readings at the town's bars and restaurants, many of which have settings overlooking rice fields and river gorges.

There will be book launches in tropical gardens, jazz bands and cocktails, fresh seafood and fruit. The vibe is friendly and relaxed; no wonder Harper's Bazaar dubbed the event "among the top six literary festivals in the world".

The festival is the brainchild of Janet de Neefe, a Melbourne-born entrepreneur (seen above with last year's star guest, Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka) who moved to the island more than 20 years ago. She's affectionately known as the Queen of Ubud, thanks to a mini-empire of guesthouses, restaurants, a bar, a bakery, a cooking school and a homewares store. So why did she decide to branch out into words and books?

"I launched the festival after the 2002 Bali bombings to attract people back to the island and boost the economy," she says. "I wanted to show that out of tragedy good things can happen.

"Since then it's gone from strength to strength. The line-up this year is fantastic - we've lined up some of the best and brightest global writers to debate the issues that divide and unite us, based on the theme Bhinneka Tunngal Ika, which means Harmony in Diversity.

We're also offering movies, panel debates, jazz and hip-hop performances, cooking classes, theatre and dance - anything to inspire writers and their readers to merge in a celebration of freedom and thoughts."

See you there.

More on the festival at:

Melissa de Villiers

* The photograph was taken by Neal Harrison

Once in a Blue Moon

Just like artists struggle to portray people smiling without looking like lunatics - which could be one of the reasons why the Mona Lisa endures - just so filmmakers struggle to make good people palatable instead of nauseatingly saccharine.

The Insatiable Moon manages to give goodness a whole new slant - and quite a bit more.

Directed by Rosemarie Riddell and scripted by her husband, Mike, from his novel of the same title, this film bristles with a benign intelligence and courage for the simple reason that it does not avoid pain, but embraces it with an entertaining clarity and compassion.

It might be interesting to know that the director is a judge and the writer is an ex-Baptist minister. If the former shows excellent discernment in her casting and direction, then the latter shows perfect restraint from practising his former profession on celluloid, even though the core scene in the film is set powerfully in a church.

Equally interesting is the fact that the film was funded by friends, in the middle of a recession, and they too showed excellent judgment, since they're sure to make their money back. It is not always thus with so-called crowd-funded films. The excellent cast and crew should also be commended for the work they did on this film, often for little money or none.

So what is it all about? A handful of mental patients are kept in a halfway house in Ponsonby by Bob (an excellent Greg Johnson), a man with a mouth like a sewer and a heart of gold. One of his "inmates" is Arthur, who considers himself the second son of God. Some of his reasoning might well bring him into contention for the No 1 spot, but then he has a vision.

Played by Rawiri Paratene, who effectively insisted himself into the part, he brings a Lear-like majesty to this man who intercedes between the living and the dead, the sane and the insane, the criminal and the law-abiding, the artist and the everyman.

In a hilarious interview with a snooty TV journalist, he quite gently shows her up to be the one who needs therapy, not him.

But the previously working-class suburb of Ponsonby has gone upmarket, and people don't want to live next to these strange and deranged people, one of whom is a convicted paedophile. These are understandable fears and the film deals with those fears rather than scorns or, worse, avoids them.

Bob needs money to keep his halfway house going, the estate agents are knocking at the door like the proverbial wolf, and Arthur has done that one thing that could drive any man insane. He has fallen in love with a vision, an ordinary, unhappily married woman, played pitch-perfectly by Sara Wiseman.

This may be a small film - a kind of benevolent One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, if you will - but it is one that has a massive heart and an even clearer mind; one that somehow manages to encapsulate everything that is good (and wrong) about the suburb, country and world in which it is set.

Neil Sonnekus

* The Insatiable Moon opens on October 7 at Rialto cinemas. Next week I'll be talking to author and screenwriter Mike Riddell.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Interview with Suchen Christine Lim

"Free speech" and "the city-state of Singapore" are not phrases that fit together well, despite cautious moves over the last few years to liberalise Singaporean society and widen the space for expression and participation. July 2010, for example, saw an international furore over the case of veteran British journalist Alan Shadrake, who is facing two years in jail for writing a book that criticises Singapore's shameful use of the death penalty.*

Amnesty International says of Shadrake's case: "If Singapore aspires to be a global media city, it needs to respect global human rights standards for freedom of expression."

Well, quite - but it's not clear whether that's going to happen any time soon. What a breath of fresh air, then, to stumble across the work of Suchen Christine Lim, the distinguished Singaporean writer who won the inaugural Singapore Literature Prize in 1992 with her third novel, A Fistful of Colours.

Born in 1948 in Malaysia, she came to Singapore at the age of 14 and worked as a teacher before taking up writing full time. Her latest book, The Lies That Build a Marriage, is a collection of short stories that focus on "the unsung, unsaid and uncelebrated in Singapore" - brave and skillful narratives about ordinary people facing difficult issues that are normally strictly taboo. Related with tender-hearted understatement, they are proof that freedom of expression in the Lion City is in less dire shape than one might have feared.

MdL: The Lies That Build a Marriage deals with such subjects as homosexuality, cross-dressing, adultery and prostitution, all in a Singaporean context. They have been rightly praised for their skill at delving beneath the island's coded decorum to describe ordinary Singaporeans attempting to chisel away at the social prejudices that surround them. The book gives people a voice, in other words, and a chance to tell their story. Was that your intention?

SCL: Some people think that my short stories focus only on things that happen in the margins of society, but of course these things are normal behaviour. It just shows what the perception of "normal" is here! We hide things so well! But yes, giving ordinary people a voice has fuelled my writing from the start - to try and "write wrongs", to write the voices that we don't hear.

It began with my first novel, Rice Bowl, published in 1984, which focused on student unrest in the Sixties and Seventies. In those days, Singapore was a hard piece of rock without a heart. Economic survival and a utilitarian philosophy ruled the day. Nobody took seriously, still less thought of writing about, how a bunch of students had questioned the national idea of progress. So the book took people by surprise.

By contrast, my short stories come at a time when we are much more confident about who we are - although there's still a part of Singaporean culture that says: "We don't want to rock the boat." You know, we all want to appear very straight and moral. It was only our grandfathers who had mistresses!

You've had an extraordinary response to some of the stories when you've read them in public: standing ovations, teary eyes, and people seeking you out to thank you for validating their experience.

Yes, that kind of response is always very moving. I think what audiences are responding to is not necessarily my craft but because they are hungry for stories which speak the unsaid and unsung, which reflect their reality.

The titular character of your story Christmas Memories of a Chinese Stepfather says: "English has no word for my kind of frustration." Certainly, the stories are sprinkled with a dizzying array of languages, from Malay to Cantonese, Singlish and Peranakan patois.

Yes, I wanted to paint a portrait of local life in all its multi-cultural intricacies. My own grandparents, for instance, came from Tangshan, China, and settled in Malaysia. When we moved to Singapore, I attended a Catholic convent - but my mum was a practising Buddhist and my grandparents were staunch Taoists. And I have relatives who are Muslim! But that's pretty normal in Singapore.

You also confront conservative beliefs in A Fistful of Colours. Here, the three female protagonists all choose alternative lifestyles for themselves, despite having to conquer many challenges to do so. These are women who feel themselves to be outsiders, who view the world at a slant and through the prism of their own troubles. Are they versions of you?

Could be! [laughs] Because I think when you write, it's part of yourself and various other selves cobbled together. But I leave that to the psychiatrists and psychologists to figure out.

One character decides to allow her husband to have a concubine, a storyline which lets you bring to life key aspects of Singapore's early history.

The idea to do that came to me in a seminar. Somebody made the comment that Singapore has no fiction because it has no history. I thought, what a brash statement - and I found myself leaping up to my feet and declaring, in front of the whole audience, that one day there would be a novel about Singapore history. And then I struggled to write that book, seeing how I could work in the full 80 years of Singapore's past.

I wanted to create a fourth protagonist who was the history of Singapore, and for this to be a "her", not a "he". I wasn't caught up in any kind of feminist debate about this, I just saw Singapore as a woman like my grandmother who, by the way, had bound feet, like the character in my book. Part of the story is based on my grandmother, and her relationship with my grandfather's second wife. The two of them, as they grew older, became very close, and this second wife was the only one entrusted with the duty of washing my grandmother's feet.

What was it like starting out as a writer in a very conservative cultural environment?

It wasn't easy. But I have to take my hat off to writers like Lee Tzu Pheng and Edwin Thumboo, poets who were publishing in English at a time when it was even more difficult: one, because of the political climate; two, because back then people in Singapore were so focused on the economy, on getting ahead, on filling the rice bowl. You were faced with attitude like: "So what's all this airy-fairy, arty-farty stuff like writing, eh? You've no business to write!" I was told to my face: "Sorry, Suchen, we don't read Singapore writers. We'd rather read Jane Austen and George Eliot." Proudly it would be declared to you, the Singaporean writer, that the reading public was only interested in the classics or Nobel prizewinners.

And that's changing?

Yes, because we have a confidence now that wasn't there before. There used to be what people called a "cultural cringe" - a lack of confidence in all things Singaporean, coming mainly from people who had been educated in English. That's when I started to consider myself very fortunate to have had uneducated, dialect-speaking grandparents, both great sources of stories, and of cultural confidence too.

So you were always conscious that your outlook as a writer was somehow different from the norm?

I was always conscious, starting out, that I was different, at least from Singapore writers here who are Chinese. I do not write like people in China. I am very clear about that. And so you will see me describing myself as of Chinese ethnicity, but situated in South-east Asia.

Is there a specifically South-east Asian approach to writing fiction?

I think there is a tradition in the West - I might be wrong - that if you are an artist or writer with talent, you can get away with almost any kind of destructive behaviour. As long as you have the talent to write and are considered good, or brilliant, or splendid in some way. Here in South-east Asia that's always balanced with a kind of responsibility to community and to family. I wouldn't call it self-censorship, as such, but we are always thinking about harmony, knowing that life is actually chaos. Life is chaos.

So I see myself as coming from a tradition that tries to use writing, like the Taoists, to create balance and harmony. If the subject is not balance and harmony, if the work needs to be about chaos, then at least it should lead to some understanding of that chaos. I mean, you know there is good and evil, yes? Yin and yang. So let's deal with it, as honestly as we can, without destroying somebody in order to achieve artistic success.

You were in your 30s, mid-way through a successful career in teaching, when writing "found" you. What had held you back from trying to publish anything before that point?

Well, I suppose it was partly to do with the fact that my family were traders. I grew up thinking I would sell congee [chicken porridge] - there wasn't any sort of encouragement, especially for girls, to pursue a literary career. Becoming a teacher, which I went on to do, was already considered different enough.

What's the most difficult aspect of writing for you?

It's writing that first draft. Incubating a novel and having to sustain it - it's like gardening every day, and waiting for something to grow. Sometimes when you watch the plant, the plant does not grow. And then you've got to turn away and wait - and when you come back it has grown an inch. In a way, you are kind of playing with your mind a hide-and-seek game. (I'm sorry about all the gardening metaphors - you can probably tell that I'm a keen balcony gardener!). So the difficult part is the cultivation of an idea - learning to wait fruitfully, learning to wait productively.

Holding your nerve...

Yes. Because I think all artists are insecure, in a way. The production of a book is the culmination of a journey dealing with insecurity, and learning how to handle it creatively. At time we may even feel depressed, but that's one way of coping. Of course, it took me many years to figure this out. Even up to the time when A Fistful of Colours won a major prize, I still never described myself as a writer. I always just said "I am writing" - using the verb, not the noun. I still felt almost like a fraud.

What's next for you?

I'm writing a novel, but I can't talk about it yet. But I'll always be writing. I can't stop. And I would very much like to believe that writing is an art form in which the older you get, the better you get. One of my mentors is Francisco Sionil Jose, the acclaimed Filipino writer. He's 85, and he has just published a new novel. I remember him saying to me: "Suchen, don't be in a hurry; just write. And go on writing." I've never forgotten that.

* Alan Shadrake's book, Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore's Justice in the Dock, angered the authorities by suggesting that the government "succumbs to political and economic pressures" in meting out the death penalty. The writer, who is 75, is also being investigated for criminal defamation by Singapore authorities.

Melissa de Villiers

Editor's Note: Neil Sonnekus's review of three extreme movies is not up to scratch and I've told him to take another, less biased look at Lars von Trier's Antichrist. Naturally he despises me but assures me that he'll re-view it and, well, re-review it by Wednesday latest.

Then, on Friday he'll be reviewing the highest-selling Kiwi film ever, the charming Boy, in a more positive frame of mind, and books editor Melissa de Villiers will be telling us about a very cool literary festival in Bali.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Viewless Wings of Poesy

The main thing you might remember about Jane Campion's largely underrated In the Cut was its erotic power, especially with Mark Ruffalo's New York cop licking all Meg Ryan's irritating mannerisms to kingdom come.

It was inspired casting, directing and filmmaking, playing as it did with notions of remembering what you saw and what you thought you saw.

The second thing you might remember was that the deliciously iconoclastic Jennifer Jason Leigh lost her head - literally.

Then you might remember that, in the end, Ryan's Frannie resolved the physical threat to her person by herself and returned to her cop lover, who had been cuffed to a heater during that time, the subtext of which we will not go into here.

You might also vaguely remember that Frannie had a thing about words in the subway train and, even less likely, you'll remember that she was a professor of writing.

Now the reason why I'm going on about this is that Campion's latest film, Bright Star, out on DVD now, is almost entirely dependent on words. Poetry, to be exact. John Keats's fine romantic poetry to be even more precise.

We have to listen to this film. Still, it looks as fresh and "organic" - Campion's stated intention and accurate description - in its execution as There Will Be Blood did.

Abbey Cornish as Fanny Brawne literally grows from a nondescript seamstress to someone who is irradiated by love for her poetic neigbour, Keats; and the scrawny Ben Whishaw manages to convey the poet's physical weakness and moral power in equal and impressive measure.

But film's poetry is not about pictures supporting words; it's precisely the other way around.


Love of a completely different kind features in Crazy Heart, with Jeff Bridges getting an Oscar for playing the role of a drunken, smoking, travelling and philandering country and western musician that requires a dramatic range, really, of about midnight to five past.

Bridges has done much better, but then who cares? He deserves the statuette not only for his talent and consistency, but also for proving the exception to the rule that Hollywood is filled with louts, idiots and egomaniacs.

The one thing that's going to change the itinerant Bad Blake, driving across the big country from one small town to another, of course, is a woman. And she comes in the guise of Jean, played with perfect charm by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Her shy music reporter is refreshing and quite brilliant.

But when Bad makes one alcoholic mistake she drops him like the lump of drunken lard he is and is virtually unmoved when he proves himself to be quite done with the demon water. In fact, she turns out to be a bit of a groupie in the end, which kind of jars with her original, winsome character.

That is the only problem I had with this warm, impressive film by debut director Scott Cooper, pulling together landscape, character and song into a satisfying whole.

Look out for a great cameo by Robert Duvall, who also co-produced, and Colin Farrell, who didn't take a front credit for reasons only his agent might know.


The closest we're going to get to wild or illicit love is in An Education, out on DVD for quite a while now but worth mentioning for its excellent acting and strong Kiwi connection.

Many a schoolboy will know the dread of seeing the object of his desire being cruised by an older, working man in a sports car, oozing practised charm from his open window.

Every time I see a red Alfa Romeo Sprint I still get the heebee-jeebies, thinking back, so when Peter Sarsgaard appeared in schoolgirl Jenny's life I told my wife that he usually gets cast as a nasty piece of work with those sleepy eyes of his.

"But he's playing such a nice guy," she said. "So far," I grumbled. "And he's cute," she said. "Hmn," I hummed.

And of course he turns out to be a real creep, which is a pity, because he really does the English charmer rather well and it would have made a nice change from a career point of view.

But he was obviously brought on board to satisfy the demands of the American market and, of course, as David he delivers. Mulligan, as Jenny, didn't get her Oscar nomination for nothing, either.

In fact, everyone delivers a fine performance. Alfred Molina as Jenny's money-obsessed and hypocritical father; Cara Seymour as his more or less voiceless, early-Sixties wife, Marjorie; Dominic Cooper as David's equally sexy partner in "business"; both Olivia Williams and Rosamund Pike cast against type as the disappointed Ms Stubbs and the flaky moll, Helen; Emma Thompson as the stern principal; and poor Matthew Beard as Graham, the clumsy, clunky schoolboy who cannot possibly compete against a man who has money, charm - and secrets.

But there's a bit of a problem with the Oscar-nominated script by popular author Nick Hornby. If the 16-year-old Jenny can be ever so mature about how and when she is going to lose her virginity, then she is also ever so easily swayed by this man - especially when he makes an utterly outrageous suggestion as to how exactly she should lose her maidenhood.

Furthermore, Hornby seems to be suggesting that for Jenny to be happy she has to end up at Oxford University, has to be seen with another man at said institution, and for the first time she has to deliver a voice-over that feels like it's been tagged on at the end.

Brought to life by Kiwi producer Finola Dwyer, who was also justly nominated, this is a well cast, shot and directed film. But its ending kind of betrays all the reported hard work that went into its making.


And then there is life without love. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) spends more time Up in the Air than on terra firma. He fires people across the country and tries, as the saying goes, to make them look forwards to the trip.

He's smart, cynical, professional, and Clooney is so well made up that he looks as if his handsome visage is going to collapse into a mask of horrified middle age on the very next flight.

Problem is, he becomes boring because his life is so boring. He gives seminars on how to handle life, using the metaphor of packing the whole of that life into your travel bag.

Through his interaction with a theory-addled young graduate who actually becomes human, played well by Natalie Keener, and a fellow traveller, the almost Faye Dunaway-like Vera Farmiga, he comes to see the hollowness of his life.

Still he manages to persuade a future brother-in-law to marry his sister, played by Kiwi actress Melanie Lynskey, because marriage is good, even though he doesn't believe it.

Finally he is told - and thus we are signposted - that he's going to have to choose between his non-committal bachelorhood and family. Those are the only two choices. To hell with a life of, say, the intellect, or starting a seafood restaurant in another country.

And because this is Hollywood we feel cheated that we've been watching this flick and are going to be given the standard ending - which is when director Ivan Reitman and Clooney hit us for a six.

They actually come up with a hard-hitting, uncompromising indictment of the American dream that makes an unpaid, long-suffering film critic's job so worth doing.

Neil Sonnekus

* On circuit at the moment is the seemingly self-explanatory Eat Pray Love with Julia Roberts and no commas; and Cairo Time, featuring the husky bedroom voice and person of Patricia Clarkson. On DVD there is the apparent retch-fest Dear John and the not-so-well received Valentine's Day and The Time Traveler's Wife, among many others.

** Next week I'll be going extreme with The Human Centipede (mad German scientist), The [post-apocalyptic] Road and AntiChrist (pretentious Danish director). Hold your breath.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Back to the Grindstone

The Nazis used to perform all kinds of outrageous medical experiments during World War Two, using Jews as their guinea pigs, so to set The Human Centipede in modern-day Germany is just downright stupid.

Or maybe Dutch filmmaker Tom Six was being mischievously vengeful. If so, he didn't do a very good job of it. His film isn't funny, like the classic Shaun of the Dead is; nor is it even remotely sexy, as Zombie Strippers is.

Even more stupid is the fact that, if you were to be captured by some crank who had obviously gone over the edge, the first thing you would do is try to get away. If your friend was passed out on Rohypnol, as one of the women in this film is, the last thing you'd try to do is drag her dead weight out through a large house containing a maniac. You'd try to escape and get help as soon as possible, and you'd try to whimper a lot softer.

Ominously subtitled First Sequence, I would rather not say what happens in this piece of junk, as much for your sanity as mine. Suffice it to say that this is just another lousy torture film, or pornography posing as art.


Someone who should know better, however, is Danish auteur Lars von Trier. He uses Willem Dafoe in a film that is almost as hilariously pretentious as the one sent up in Mr Bean's Holiday - which stars, of course, Dafoe. It's probably a little postmodern in-joke.

There are quite a few pluses to Antichrist, on second viewing. Von Trier likes forcing us to slow down and even breaking up the film into episodes, which is fine. Slow is not necessarily bad. The film is also exquisitely shot.

But it's the premise that's problematic. More about that in a minute.

The plot is simple. A couple are making love in the shower while their son goes walkabout and sweeps the three miseries of Pain, Grief and Despair away. Then he rather joyfully jumps to his death. Obviously mama is wracked with guilt and her callous husband, He, a therapist, is more interested in healing her as a patient than loving her as a wife.

He will get her back to health, but in order to achieve that they must go to the place where she feels the most fear. That place is the not-so subtly named Eden, their cottage in the woods. Now the film may be ostensibly set in America, but they take a train and taxi to the woods, which is a completely European notion. The point is we all know what happens when you go down to the woods today, don't we?

It is in Eden where She wrote and abandoned her thesis on the persecution of women in the 16th century. Why did she give it up? Because she found herself guilty of being glib; it was too easy. In fact, she came to the conclusion that "nature is Satan's garden" and, women being at the mercy of natural cycles, are therefore evil.

Presumably it was this bit of amateur reasoning that caused the controversy and not the various pornographic images - penis in vagina, ejaculating blood, big close-up on self-induced cliterectomy with rusty scissors, a naked Gainsbourg masturbating out on the "evil" grass.

Christian and Muslim fundamentalists will agree wholeheartedly with Von Trier and evolutionists will laugh at him: nature doesn't give a hoot about us; it just does its thing.

Things get even more silly when She knocks Him out by crushing his testicles and proceeds to screw a metal rod through his calf and attaches a grindstone to it. He doesn't bleed much from it, so this might have a mythical angle to it, but He understandably has problems walking for a while.

Things climax (pun intended) when He strangles Her to death and then sees the reincarnations of all those women who were tortured walking through the woods, which seems like a bit of a copout. Why can't he just say he hates and fears women and get it over and done with? It would certainly be more truthful than this bit of intellectual masturbation.


On a more elevated level is The Road, based on author of the moment Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer-prizewinner of the same name.

A father and his son have to negotiate a post-apocalyptic landscape that is truly terrifying. The cities are broken, the sky and ocean permanently grey - and everywhere there are roaming gangs of cannibals, rapists and murderers. A father is forced to possibly kill his son rather than let the marauders do so.

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee are perfect as the film's two leads; after a while one almost feels the dirt under their nails and collars.

But if the horror of this possible future scenario is astutely portrayed and contrasted with a time when all was "normal", as signified by the man's wife in flashback, played by a wholesome-looking Charlize Theron, who nevertheless commits suicide, then some pretty old fashioned notions are still embedded in its coding.

For example, it takes all the boy's persuasive power to convince his father not to kill a black man who stole from the child when he could have slit his throat. But for that the man must be stripped naked in a Max Ernst-like landscape and only later will the father agree to let them return the man's clothes and leave him a can of food. By then, of course, the man is gone. Just a little white-on-black humiliation to pass the time of day?

Presumably this isn't a nuclear landscape because then the tale's affirmation of family values would be kind of twisted. I mean, what would the Boy produce for future generations? Six-legged mutants?

On the other hand, exactly how did this environmental disaster happen? We are not told. We must therefore assume that McCarthy is merely stating a very basic Darwinian truth, which is that fathers die and their sons go hang out with who- and whatever profits them, whether emotionally or materially.

Penetrating stuff.

Neil Sonnekus