Thursday, September 1, 2011

Funny Bones

Today’s two movies are comedies, but the one is a work of fiction and the other is a documentary.

The Guard has been compared with Martin McDonagh’s brilliant In Bruges because not only is it similar in tone, casting and structure, it’s also made by his brother, John Michael.

But is The Guard really as good as In Bruges, which has attained virtual cult status?

Well, no, which doesn’t mean it’s bad at all, but the latter had a great setting and a relationship between two men that was not only hilarious but also perfectly touching.

The Guard goes the gruff route, yet again starring Brendan Gleeson. This time he’s a provocative Irish cop who has to team up with an American agent, come all the way to Ireland to prevent a drug consignment from the States getting in.

Big white faux bigot and thin black American. For one, I struggled to hear everything that Gleeson was saying, so colloquial was it. Secondly, the sunny Tijuana music had an extremely tenuous connection with what was happening in overcast Eire, nor did it quite work as ironic counterpoint. Three, women once again don’t feature much, except as secondary characters, if that: Gleeson’s mum is dying and he consorts with prostitutes.

On the plus side it's a very cleverly plotted film, the dialogue is sharp - especially when delivered by Mark Strong's watchable, educated thug - and it's good to see Cheadle playing a hard-nosed character for a change. 


Much more complex and moving is the documentary Billy T: Te Movie.

Every country seems to produce its iconic joker and Billy T seems to have been it for New Zealand. When William James Te Wehi Taitoko started making waves it was still unusual to see a Maori on TV. People would talk about a once-off appearance for weeks afterwards. This was as recent as the mid-Seventies.

But the man was so talented he couldn’t be stopped. If a country like, say, South Africa, actively barred people from doing their thing because of their colour, then it was completely different in Aotearoa. It seems Maori were politely included and effectively neutralised.

Billy T’s joke of him being half Maori and half Scottish – “the one half of me wants to get pissed and the other half doesn’t want to pay” - is extremely telling. It takes a swipe at both parties’ ills but does so with what South Africa’s forced icon, Leon Schuster, lacks. That is, charm.

But that joke still sums up the friendly but uneasy relationship between an indigenous minority and a predominantly Scots-based majority, not to mention the yellow danger, at which Billy T's folksy character also takes very funny, un-PC swipes.

If only he could have stepped out of the screen and time and told the macho douche bag sitting next to me that he wasn't at a restaurant where he could talk at will: he was in a cinema.

The docco also explores that quality most highly successful entertainers seem to have. They’ve usually got sad backgrounds and their real family is the audience they feed off. Without that they’re dead, literally.

Director Ian Mune has done an affectionate and entertaining but comprehensive job of summing up an era, a massive talent and a friend.

Neil Sonnekus

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