Thursday, December 30, 2010

See You on the Other Side

It happens towards the end of every year. You know, you think if you see one more movie you're going to puke all over your jandals, but after a short break you feel that old excitement of seeing a flick's opening titles again.

So the only reason why I'm doing a "best and worst of" summary of the year's movies is because I'm frankly too slack to go and see The Kids Are All Right and then still write about it.

I started this blog halfway through the year so I don't have to worry about what went before that, but I  think The Secret In Their Eyes is the best movie of the year anyway. It had drama, comedy, romance and insight, which is always better than any special effect.

This Argentinean film should have won the Oscar for best film - in any language.

Biting at its heels was a tiny, low-budget film that the New Zealand Film Commission didn't deem good enough to produce, but Rosemary and Mike Riddell's The Insatiable Moon had the same qualities as the aforementioned work and is still proving its worth at that great leveller, the box office.

Though I went a bit overboard with four "excellent"s in my review, a very camp Pacific Islander kind of echoed that when he told a rather stiff Pakeha couple in the queue ahead of him that it was "brilliant".

Another great, disturbing and even more contemporary film was A Prophet, giving us a glimpse into how casual but sustained prejudice against Islam merely leads to its increasing radicalisation. Done in that almost blank style of some French movies and maybe a tad too long, its message comes across loudly and clearly.

In fact, it was a very good year for French movies, what with the wonderfully laconic Farewell, starring that great director Emir Kusturica, and the uplifting The Concert deserving all the praise that was lavished upon them. Both their stories had fascinating Russian connections, which made a welcome change from the usual Anglo-American axis.  

France-based Roman Polanski also made a welcome return to form with his vicious political satire on that very relationship in The Ghost Writer, starring Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan. It, too, has no special effects but is doing steady business at the box office.

The Social Network is still doing well at the BO, but can anyone remember any kind of story? And does it matter to the Attention Deficit generation? Apparently not. They seem to like their bites short, simultaneous and, uh, well, like, you know... 

Lastly, two low-budget dramas that punched way above their weight had this reviewer gaping at their quality of old fashioned storytelling. Winter's Bone is as chilling as its title suggests and has everyone sitting up and taking notice of its director, Debra Granik, and star Jennifer Lawrence.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed is surely the lowest-budget movie of the year, but it's as taut as a crossbow string on either side of the arrow, pointing straight at that little point between your eyes.

There weren't many notable comedies this year, partially because they are so difficult to make and easy to forget because they're usually so bad, but the Coen brothers made a masterpiece in A Serious Man. If it's slightly too Jewish for some people's taste, it's still an ultra-clever bit of fatalism.

Not far behind it was the German comedy Soul Kitchen by Fatih Akin, describing just how resilient and funny the life of a migrant worker can be.

As for dogs of the year, with all respect to canines, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest must surely rank as the most allergy-inducing study in entitlement of a woman, not a girl, in 2010. Due Date was without a doubt the most over-hyped and under-delivering comedy.

They really strained one's patience, not to mention pocket.

Talking about hype, The King's Speech has got so much of it so long before its release - January 20 - that one wonders whether its trailer is also better than the real thing.

Whatever the case, it stars Colin Firth who has had one hell of a productive period with films like GenovaDorian Gray and A Single Man, a film that is right up there with the rest of this year's more intelligent fare.

According to an interview seen on TV recently, Firth reckons that if you chant "Oscar" often enough you'll win it, but he should get it as much for his talent as for one of his many self-deprecating quotes. Here's one from the Internet Movie Database:

"People will tell you they act because they want to heal mankind or, you know, explore the nature of the human psyche. Yes, maybe. But basically we [actors] just want to put on a frock and dance."

And now I'm going on holiday to practise my thousand-yard stare for two weeks, so there'll be nothing doing on this blog until I get back.

Happy New Year.

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A is for Ass-kicking

Two movies in which women aren't support systems for men but getting up to all kinds of trouble of their own, and that during the stupid season.

In the more commercial Easy A, Emma Stone plays "an average school girl" who tells a lie about losing her virginity as a joke and sets off a rumour mill that spirals way out of control. The book she is studying at school happens to be The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, which exposes Puritanical America's sour little heart to the core.

This film cleverly continues that fine tradition with something most films these days lack: charm.

Stone, of course, does not look or act like an average school girl. She is the all-American redhead - tall, wide mouth, slight lisp, knowing voice over. She could play anything from a slightly older Lolita to a Kathleen Turner who launched a murderer in Body Heat. She is so charged with suburban sexuality that she just has to walk to exude her own erotic subtext.

Secondly, it's a pity that her very hip parents, played very well and wackily by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, had to adopt a black child, who doesn't work. He's just there. Then again, the story is generally so clever that this becomes quite a slap in the direction of over-well-meaning liberals.

Neither does Lisa Kudrow exactly convince as a serious school counsellor; we expect her to be wacky and she insists on being seriously neurotic. Or rather, her writer/director Will Gluck does, which is a pity.

But those are side issues: the main thing is that this isn't a comedy that starts off with cheap jokes and ends with a car chase. It's confident enough in itself to let the laughs come filtering through from the halfway mark on, and it takes such a savage swipe at modern fundamentalist Christianity that one wonders whether the suits who green-lighted it actually understood what they were doing.

Maybe the producer told them it was a high-school comedy about how gossip can spiral out of control and showed them the talented Stone's audition reel instead of the script.

At the very other end of the scale financially, and across the Atlantic geographically, is The Disappearance of Alice Creed.

Starring exactly three people - there aren't even extras - it is not boring for one second. Two men kidnap a woman and take her to a flat they have specially furnished for their needs: a soundproof room with a strong, bolted bed and plenty of handcuffs. They've even thought about her toiletry needs.

But slowly some interesting facts start emerging. As with so many crimes, there's a personal element to this one. One of the kidnappers, Danny (Martin Compston), actually knows the rich daddy's girl, Alice (Gemma Arterton).

Loves her, in fact. Or rather, he says so. And when she discovers it's him, she also says so. But Vic (Eddie Marsan) also has some involvement here, and he senses that the weaker Danny is having all kinds of doubts, or maybe he's just acting that way. And then, hello, the two men also have something a little more than just a mutual criminal mission going on between them.

Arterton plays her part to perfection, using the little scope she has to the utmost: her body and her wiles.

If the first 10 minutes are unnecessarily contrived - why don't Danny and Vic talk to each other, and why would there be lighting and working toilets in a very high, unused block of flats? - then we forgive that because this is a low-budget movie that is as much about crime as it is about sexual politics.

Every film student who is serious about making a break into the industry should watch this flick to see just how three people in a couple of locations can have you squirming in your seat, wondering what the hell is going to happen next.

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Bones of Hollowood

It is to Sofia Coppola's credit that she makes films about the excessive privilege she seems so well accustomed to instead of professing any kind of concern about, say, the poor, and so she must be criticised or praised accordingly.

In the case of her latest film, unfortunately, there is very little to praise. In fact, the very first image of Somewhere pretty much sums up 90% of the movie: a black Ferrari speeds round and round a dirt track, the camera perfectly still and letting the car roar in and out of frame. This happens about five times and there are no credits, just the monotonous sound of the car and a view of the desert outside Los Angeles.

Then Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) gets out of his car and we can see that he's no flashy dresser. In fact, he's going to wear the same old boots, jeans and various check shirts throughout this film. Unlike the kind of actor who has come up through the ranks of college and theatre productions, he was clearly one of those good-luck stories of going to a film audition for a laugh, getting the part and becoming spectacularly rich and famous.

When an actor asks him about Method acting at one of those interminable La La Land parties, Johnny can scarcely answer him, except to say something like hang in there. Women throw themselves at him but he is so bored that he falls asleep with his head between a woman's thighs.

If there are such moments of droll humour, they are very few and far between. A lot of the film is made up of Johnny sitting on the couch in his famous artist's hotel and smoking. And drinking a beer. And lighting another cigarette.

Or his head is covered in latex for a special effect. He sits on a chair, with only his nostrils showing, and the camera slowly, ever so slowly, tracks in on his monstrous white face while he breathes. The whole idea is that when he sees the final result, himself as an ugly old man, it will spark an existential crisis, but just how laboured does it have to be?

What might have saved him is his lovely daughter, played by the delightfully natural Elle Fanning, who is only tagged along when he is more or less given no other choice but to comply. And when he does half-heartedly apologise to her about maybe not being the most responsible kind of father around, his voice is drowned out by the publicity helicopter droning behind him.

On and on it goes, until he finally realises that his life is - hello - empty.

Coppola seems to be making an homage to her father and especially his Italian contemporaries' existential movies of the Seventies. The only problem is they did it much better and that was then, this is now and the rich still have to earn our sympathy - just as it ever was.

At the very other end of the scale in every respect is Winter's Bone, also by a woman director, Debra Granik.

Unlike Johnny Marco, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) does not have the luxury of money or time. Her father is a drug dealer who had been caught and posted his house as collateral to get him out on bail. Now he's disappeared and if Ree can't find him she and her mother and two younger siblings are out on the bones of their arses in a week's time.

The mother has retreated into herself or maybe her brains are just fried by the kind of stuff her husband cooks, so it's all down to 17-year-old Ree.

The setting is the grim Ozark mountain region of southern Missouri and always in the wintry background guns are being fired. They could be hunters' rifles, or they could be drug deals gone wrong. If the mountains are beautiful then people's yards are full of broken caravans and disused tyres.

Usually a film about something that is off-screen doesn't work; here it works a treat, just adding to the menace and uncertainty of Ree's predicament. We actually want to see the father and have him held to account.

But no one will tell Ree where her father is and Granik manages to persuade us that as mean and nasty as these Deliverance-type folks are, the women as much as the men, there is also something innately decent about them.

It's a paradox that is beautifully exemplified by Ree's uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes), a nasty piece of work on the edge of excessive violence and genuine pity. When she tells him that she's never really trusted him he replies that's because she's a smart girl.

At one stage she is so desperate that she decides to join the army for the $40 000 inducement, but she's too young and the recruiting officer gives her some surprisingly good advice. So not even that ironic course of action will provide a way out.

And so there's the heavy metal music in the background, the forest settings of slasher movies as well as their implements: axes and an electric saw. But it is the realism of the story that makes this film and its final discovery so chilling, even if the ending is a little drawn out.

Winter's Bone didn't win the Sundance Film Festival Prize for nothing, and it and Lawrence have also been nominated for Golden Globe Awards. Somewhere hasn't and probably won't and definitely shouldn't.

But there you have it. Those who are rich and bored out of their minds, and those who will become cannon  fodder to help their dependants. Hollywood and America. You either love it or you hate it.

Neil Sonnekus

*Matter of Fact: In my review of Due Date I neglected to mention that the first name of that fine actor Downey Jr is, in fact, Robert. And in last week's review of the dire The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest I inferred that the capital of Sweden is Oslo, which of course it's not. It is Stockholm.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Girl With the Attitude Problem

Sweden. - Julian Assange is being accused of sexual molestation in that country and "hacktivists" are trying to paralyse the likes of Mastercard and Visa for withdrawing support from his WikiLeaks.

More importantly, however, hacker and sexual victim Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) is fighting for her life after surviving a night underground with a bullet in her head, among others.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is the final episode of the Millennium trilogy, based on the late Stieg Larsson's airport thrillers which, in cinematic terms, started off well and, like most sequels, deteriorated rapidly. Here we are scraping the bottom of the barrel beneath the icy, dirty waters of Oslo.

Lisbeth is going to spend much of the movie recovering in hospital, where she responds blankly to the kind of doctor who comes around once in a, well, millennium. Played by I don't know who because the Internet Movie Database doesn't provide a photograph or his title as a clue, all I know is he's one of those kind, level-headed European doctors who will not get even the slightest glimpse of gratitude from madam, who has rapidly used up all of her sympathy quota.

Meanwhile, a lot of old men with Nazi links have endless meetings about how she must be stopped and re-committed to the loony bin, where she was clearly abused by another doctor, another old man.

And then there is the ever-persistent journalist Michael Nyqvist (Mikhael Blomkvist) and his editor and on/off partner Erika Berger (the beautiful Lena Endre), working tirelessly for Lisbeth via his ego.

Yes, there is a lot of atmosphere in the film. We constantly wonder when Lisbeth, Erika, Michael or his pregnant sister, another nameless wonder for the same above reasons, are going to be taken out by some awful Eastern Europeans on those grim, wintry streets.

There is exactly one action sequence and that's when one of the latter almost succeeds in killing Michael in a restaurant. But that, apart from Lisbeth's surly giant of a half-brother who goes around psychopathing everyone, is about it.

The whole thing is going to build towards a court case in which all the old fogeys are relying on the fact that, up to now, Lisbeth has refused to open her mouth in her own defence. And guess what she's going to do in court? Why, she's going to open it, and she's going to show us just how good she is at semantics.

Most absurd of all is that Michael's sister is going to defend Lisbeth. Maybe they don't have conflict-of-interest practices in Sweden, but I very much doubt it. Still, it's very nice seeing Michael looking upon Lisbeth altruistically in the dock in her full black punk regalia, having provided his sister with most of the information they need, and she about to pop a baby just to give it all that extra frisson.

Obviously they win - but does Lisbeth look relieved, happy, grateful? not on your nelly - and by now we are way past the two-hour mark and my Hitchcockian bladder is bursting and I actually have to get to work of the paying variety, but Lisbeth has one more thing to do.

She has to go to a remote barn in the country where her half-brother is hiding out and he, well, I suppose he tosses her about for the benefit of those who like that sort of thing until he ends up hanging from that hook we're shown as she enters, but I can't be sure because by then I'd left for the above reasons and because this franchise was now ready for what Rowan Atkinson calls glorious television.

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Slashing Those Poppies

One of the reasons why Flight of the Conchords is such a cult success beyond its own boundaries is that it sends up the very notion of white New Zealandness.

Murray's obsession with bureaucratic form (roll calls for three), Jemaine's compressed yesses ("Yis") and Bret's inability to express his innate decency, except perhaps through song, seem to be Kiwi to the core. These three lovable miseries are not just characters but also national characteristics, which includes that obsession with our bigger, louder neighbour.

By the same token, the reason why Once Were Warriors was such a success was because it was as primal as, well, a haka. If it dealt with the universal theme of male abuse in the family, then it did so from an unashamedly Maori perspective. There was no liberal, politically correct white pussyfooting; it was the real thing, and it worked, it sold. It was also just one story.

The Insatiable Moon is another film that will transcend its own boundaries, in the sense that I could watch it as a South African and see it deal with a subject echoing that country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in a way that is pertinent, witty and wise.

None of the above films or TV series has an overseas actor in a leading role, which is amazing.

But now we get to films like Matariki by Michael Bennett and Predicament by Jason Stutter. The former, made very much in the ensemble style of Short Cuts and Crash (the Oscar winner, not the more interesting Cronenburg one) in which various people's lives intersect, is set in South Auckland and features the lives and loves of quite a few people. Too many, in fact.

First, there is a pair of teenagers who have the kind of cringe-worthy dialogue of which Jemaine and Bret are acutely aware, some of it giving the impression that it's meant to shock more than necessarily be realistic or logical, let alone funny. This doesn't mean they aren't charming - they are -but we never really get to know why, for example, the Chinese girl doesn't like home: she just stays away.

Then there is Sara Wiseman playing a cop whose Maori husband spends most of his screen time in a coma. What is this very capable and watchable actress expected to do? Emote, and she does it very well, but who is she? All we can deduce is that she wants to be alone with her husband, which is understandable, to the exclusion of his family, which is problematic. She doesn't seem to be on bad terms with them, but that's about all we're going to learn about her.

Likewise, there's a young woman who looks about 11 months pregnant, but when the child does finally come the boyfriend skedaddles and she's not really interested in baba either. Why? Because her junkie man has left her? In the end she leaves both of them, but exactly what her motivations are is not entirely clear.

Matariki is not a "bad" film by any stretch of the imagination: the way a baby stirs a protective instinct in a gay man and how that white baby inveigles its way into a loving Maori family (another positive) that has to make the unenviable decision of turning off someone's life-support system, is profoundly moving.

But the film is trying to keep so many other balls in the air - of which I've only mentioned a few - that it cannot focus on and therefore thoroughly explore this one primal event.

In Predicament there is a man who has the wonderfully weird obsession of building a wooden tower in his back yard to the exclusion of everything and everyone else. His story arc ends (and I don't care what happened in the book) with him starting to talk to everyone around him again, and destroying his dream, his tall, hallucinogenic...poppy.

The film flopped at the box office.

Similarly, in Matariki there is a funky, catchy song called Look What Love Can Do. But it's featured smack bang in the middle of the movie, in a daytime market scene of a mostly night-time movie, and then again over the end titles.


The other thing it doesn't do is let rip, in a Jennifer Hudson kind of way. It really is a spill-your-guts kind of dance-floor number, which could have been a national hit. Did it ever make it to the radio? Did anyone ever push it that way or use it as a promotional tool in a TV spot? Nothing seems to have filtered through.

The long and the short of it is that Matariki and Predicament are similar in that they have a consensual, almost polite feeling about them, especially the latter. They don't seem to be driven by a central artistic vision - a tall poppy, if you will - and this is not entirely the relatively young directors' faults.

Put in another way, it looks as if those films' producers were administering epidurals instead of delivering those babies bloody, screaming and healthy on to our screens.

Neil Sonnekus