Archive for the ‘Film Review’ Category

Food on Film, Documentary and Television.

July 15, 2017

 

 

TV Review: Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown

(Food and Travel)

8/10 Stars

By Andrew Johnstone

There are three constants that define the process of being alive and living: survival, reproduction and nourishment. The first two are not possible without the last, the method by which living organisms obtain the energy that fuels the machinery of existence from the biosphere This energy is extracted from the light of the sun, from the mineral substance of the planet and from the gaseous chemicals of the atmosphere and passed about between species about in a vast cycle that feeds billions in a bewildering variety of ways and means.

In the human species, energy extraction is an impulse that has transcended the base process of survival and has morphed into an art so profound and fundamental to the human experience that we cannot be properly examined without reference to the food we grow, prepare and eat which perhaps explains the popularity of television food shows.

This genre offers a bewildering variety of options but of them all, one shines like no other. The host is Anthony Bourdain and the show is called Parts Unknown.

 

Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (2013 -)

Anthony Bourdain (Born 1956) is acerbic, ironic, informed and opinionated and he has a unique take on food and its centrality to the human experience. A former professional chef and author of the groundbreaking expose of life in the restaurant kitchen, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (2000) Bourdain has progressed into television and has made four shows: A Cooks Tour (2002-3), No Reservations (2005-12), The Layover (2011-13) and Parts Unknown (2013-).

Music, art politics and history are all part of the Bourdain formula and as for the food, he lsays little more than a “mmm, that’s good” as he tackles everything from ‘baby beaver in blood gravy’ to nasty looking NY street food. He loves mystery meat. “If it does not have the potential to give you the shits it isn’t worth it,” he explains to the camera.

In an age when American has turned inward and closed itself to social equitability and new experience, Bourdain (refreshingly) is a strident and unrepentant American Socialist and his cause is equality and inclusivity. He has seen too much of Britain, The EU and Scandinavia to be taken in by the self-serving economic truths espoused by Conservative America.

While he acknowledges America’s faults, he never forgets that America is more than shouty Christian Republications with guns. Mostly this is a people of good countenance seeking the best from life and each other. He also loves American food – street food, fast food, fine dining, BBQ ……all of it and the rest.

 

Season 5 Episode 5 Madagascar.

He explores that mysterious Island off the lower East Coast of Africa with filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan – 2010) and finds a unique biosphere teetering. Bourdain never says much when doing the face to face (he says what he wants to say in voiceovers). Mostly he just prompts people along and they talk and tales of corruption, exploitation, over population, poverty and lawlessness spill out explaining the conditions that have led to the environmental shambles that is modern Madagascar. Regardless, he finds people of good heart with hope in the future as well as a ton of spicy meat laden food.

 

The thing that sets Bourdain apart from all his peers is his unwavering dedication to reality. An unapologetic carnivore, he never flinches from the hard truth of meat and the camera never turns away from a creature being slaughtered (he often participates) lifting the veil on an unappealing aspect of food.

For all his liberalism he does not get vegetarianism and has no time at all for hipsters and food Nazi’s. Opinionated yes, fanatical about it…..no. He mocks others, he mock himself. In the Bronx a guy on the street says “Hey, ain’t you that Anthony Bourdain?” Bourdain, “Nah, I wish I had his money!” Guy, “Yeah, that prick – fuck him”.

He is honest and straightforward and he is not afraid to reflect on his years as a heroin addict, He knocks back the booze like he’s on a mission and one time in Amsterdam he gets high as fuck and raves about his CNN contract. In Season 4 Episode 7 Massachusetts, he explains his proclivities while reflecting on that nations Pharmaceutical opioid crisis. This is a ‘hard’ episode that still manages to serve up some pretty tasty looking local food. Go figure.

 

Season 9 Episode 7 Oman.

He reveals Oman to be a moderately liberal Muslim society governed by an enlightened Sheik. The people practice a mild form of Islam, which prompts Bourdain to remind us that like Christianity “Islam is not a monolith”. Woman have broad rights and are championed by a progressive leader but later out on the edge of the desert while eating and dancing with Bedouin men we are given a surreptitious glimpse of a heavily veiled woman standing far in the background and off to the side. Bourdain can be as subtle as he can cynical and opinionated.

Josh Homme and Mark Lanegan (QOTSA) wrote and recorded the shows raucous opening anthem. As artfully grunge as the man himself, it sets an appropriate tone. This is a sharp production with a decent budget and there is emphasis on lighting and composition, editing and research…. stuff like that. In one episode, it may have been Philadelphia, he is not in a good mood and gets drunk while waiting out the interminable time between setting a scene and filming it. “Those fucking lighting guys and sound guys and camera guys….. it goes fucking on and on,” but he has way too much conscience to let himself behave too badly or take it too far.

 

Season 3 Episode 6 Russia.

Bourdain shares tasty looking Russian food and alcohol with some interesting locals who are not as jaded as you imagine Russians could be. It’s his outright disdain for Putin that makes this episode so compelling.

Season 9 Episode 2 Los Angeles.

Trump is now president and Bourdain talks to Latino Americans about food and not being white. Acknowledging that undocumented workers “do the work most of us don’t want to do” Bourdain is unforgiving in his disdain for Trump. He finishes up with this: “Dear Mr President, Muslim Americans pay more taxes than you do”.

He has another go at Trump while in Antarctica, Season 9 Episode 6. What he finds at McMurdo is a community dedicated to scientific endeavour and co-operative egalitarianism, and in an age where science is being undermined and money counts more than community, this is all a big beautiful breath of bullshit free air.

 

They eat a lot of meat in Argentina and the people of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia (the birthplace of wine) are fighting to sustain a modern progressive democratic culture. Nashville was a musical eye opener and Quebec came across as odd. Sichuan Ethiopia Borneo were among the most compelling episodes ….. oh and his chef/guide in Sicily, he who goes out to catch the seafood for the meal he is about to cook. Well it goes that Bourdain’s crew catch the guy dropping market bought fish and octopus into the sea and then diving in and retrieving it while proclaiming to one and all the natural abundance (these waters are long fished out). Bourdain rolls his eyes and spends the rest of the episode avoiding him as much as possible.

Bourdain’s Dogma is thus: “To eat and drink with people without fear and prejudice. Over a meal they open up to you in ways that somebody who is driven by a story may not get.”

 

 

 

Rick Stein’s Long Weekends (2016)

English celebrity chef and mega wealthy restaurant mogul Rick Stein is in many ways Bourdain’s opposite. While they both travel and eat, Stein is all about food and nice scenes. Stein avoids political commentary and has little of interest to say outside of a few pedestrian observations. Nice light entertainment that’ll easily fill out an evening. If you like there is more, lots more. The Rick Stein food franchise is mega. This series is all about easily reached but slightly ‘off the radar’ European weekend destinations. Bugger about Brexit.

 

 

Nigella Lawson.

Everything in Nigella’s world is sensuous and sexy and eating seems to be her fetish. She can be informative, occasionally entertaining but mostly she is just strangely fascinating (for the reasons I have noted). She is not a chef, “just someone who cooks and eats for pleasure”. Lately she has been doing a lot of Reality TV, cooking contests, that kind of thing. Sometimes she sounds like a character Enid Blyton might have written, mostly she is entertaining, knowledgeable and pleasantly unique.

 

River Cottage (1999-2015)

If Anthony Bourdain is Rock and Roll and Rick Stein is AOR Pop then Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (River Cottage) is Morris Dancing. Gentle, rural and resourceful, Hugh is a Jamie Oliver like figure for the allotment set. A bit dull.

River Cottage is a brand used for a number of ventures by television chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. These include a long running television series, cookery courses, events, restaurants and products such as beer and yogurt – Wikipedia

 

 

Cooked (2016)

Food writer and philosopher Michael Pollan examines food from the most primal perspective in his Netflix series Cooked. This 4 part series explores in order: Fire, Water, Air and Earth and the relationship of these elements to food.

The broad conclusion of the series is that the evolution of our energy hungry brain has been aided by ever more efficient methods of extracting nutrients from the environment. So far so good but in the end Pollan, is like his conclusions, is pedestrian. Still worth a look but.

 

Chef’s Table (2015- )

Chefs Table is documentary series that explores the lives of notable Chef’s. It tackles muse and philosophical motivation as well as ingredients and technique. This series is challenging and perhaps a little overblown – this last statement depends on how prepared you are to accept the Chef as an artist worthy of deep analysis. Many of these chefs are thoughtful people. Some a little mad, one or two crazy. Just like most ‘artistic’ professions. Made by the guy who bought us the acclaimed ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’ (imagine Studio Ghibli as food documentary). Pretty good overall.

 

 

Food Films:

City of Gold (2016)

Jonathon Gold is a journalist who fell into food writing when he grew bored with his job as a sub-editor at the L.A Times. He decided to review every food joint on a particular strip in L.A. His project turned heads and later he become the first food journalist to win the Pulitzer Prize.

At ease with food trucks and haute cuisine both, Gold is a trained musician, successful writer and cultural philosopher. He is an assiduous researcher and a fountain of information. We go about with Gold in his pickup truck as he seeks out opportunity for his prodigious appetite, “They have good chilli fries”, “that place has good Korean”, “over there is the best Ethiopian,” and so it goes. He seems to have eaten everywhere and the mind boggles at the scope of his ambition.

Later the film weighs up Gold’s food writing against food review sites like Zomato (where “amazing” seems to be standard – the filmmakers) and we get some insight into what it takes to be a vocational food critic of integrity. Gold can make or break a business and understanding the responsibilities he goes about his work with diligence, sometimes visiting a restaurant 17 times before writing his review. Very satisfying.

 

 

The Search For General Tso (2014) and Deli Man (2105).

‘General Tso’s Chicken’ is one of the most popular dishes in America, possibly second only to pizza, and this documentary sets out to discover the story behind the dish and in doing the doing reveals something of the Chinese/American experience and the evolution of the ubiquitous suburban Chinese Restaurant.

 

Deli Man is strikingly similar to General Tso’s Chicken except the subject matter is Jewish American food culture. At one time the American food landscape was defined by tens of thousands of Chinese Restaurants and Jewish Deli’s. Unlike the ubiquitous Chinese Restaurant the Deli is in decline but there are those dedicated to maintaining the tradition of this culturally significant food style. Cue Ziggy.

A third generation deli owner and trained Chef, he has made a name for himself as the torchbearer for traditional Jewish American Deli food. A man of outsize personality his insights are compelling as his big heart.

Besides the chicken itself, General Tso’s Chicken explains the famous Jewish love affair with the Chinese restaurant and Deli Man responds by explaining about the Jewish Chinese relationship, one forged from their mutual experience as social outsiders. As for General Tso himself, he is an historic provincial hero whose name is attached to many things as an honorarium and the reaction of locals to this American Chinese food innovation is as startling and hilarious. “Did General Tso love chicken? We don’t know the answer to that question”.

 

 

A Film About Coffee (2014).

Coffee is a mildly ‘consciousness altering’ beverage that turns the effort of waking into an anticipatory experience and this documentary seeks to be a hip and poetic exposition on the beverage from farm to cup. The story of America’s ‘small’ coffee industry contribution to rising incomes for growers in the third world is probably the most useful part. A bit wank at times but at least the kids care.

 

 

Soul Kitchen (2009, Directed by Faith Akin)

Drama, Comedy

Zinos is the owner of a shabby backstreet restaurant in Hamburg. He is behind on his taxes and his life is a shambles. Things get crazy when he decides to make sort things. In short, the Germans are crazy and Soul Kitchen is a lot of fun. The German Trailer is much better than the American one:

 

 

 

Babette’s Feast (1987, Directed by Gabriel Axel)

Drama/Morality Fable

A refugee from the French Revolution, aristocrat Babette finds herself in Denmark and cooking for a pious Danish family and their congregation. Many years later she wins a lottery and rather than return to her old life in Paris, she decides to spend the money cooking her community a feast born of appreciation. If you need a little unaffected beauty without the schmaltz factor, this is your film.

 

 

 

The Lunchbox (2013, Directed by Ritesh Batra)

Romantic Drama

Everyday, wife prepares loving lunch for indifferent husband. One day the Dabbawala (Mumbai style Lunch delivery specialist) delivers the food to the wrong man. The food keeps coming, he writes her notes of appreciation and back and forward it goes. A friendship develops and …… well, you’ll see. A delightful film about love, longing, flavour and appreciation – You won’t find a more perfect meal anywhere.

 

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14 Films About New Zealand.

June 4, 2017

 Sam Neil, Sleeping Dogs (1977)

 

I tried to count all the feature films ever made in New Zealand but I have never been very good with numbers and got about halfway through the list before I lost my place. By the time I fumbled the third go I was over it so lets just say about 250 films have been made in New Zealand including television films and big screen feature films. This includes a handful of overseas productions that have been made entirely here and excludes dozens of others (mostly Hollywood and Bollywood) that have been partially made here.

The first feature was by Gaston Méliès brother of legendary pioneering French film director Georges Méliès (A Trip to the Moon 1902). The Méliès brothers were struggling financially and Gaston was sent out into the wider world in search of the exotic and hopefully a reversal of fortune. It didn’t work but Gaston managed to make three fictional narratives, one feature documentary and a series of documentary shorts.

The first of these was a film called Hinemoa (1913) of which no copies survive, but it’s the example that matters here. Gaston inspired the locals and in 1914 the first NZ film proper was made. This was also called Hinemoa and was based on the same story about a Maori princess and her lover. That we made any movies at all so early on is a miracle in itself considering the lack of population, resources and technology but that’s Kiwi’s for you – always keen to try new things using whatever is at hand.

It took until the 1980s for the industry to fully engage and another 20 years for it to build up a full head of steam. These days it is a major industry and is pumping out a regular diet of art, box office and blockbuster, some of it successful, some not.

As for the best of this New Zealand film, I am offering a subjective list that is mostly way off beam with the mainstream of thinking on the subject. A good friend, an authority in fact, thinks my Kiwi favourites are mostly ludicrous but to be fair, while his list is politically ‘correct’ it is also hard work as in “bloody hell, these films are difficult to watch.” We agree to disagree.

Except for Once Were Warriors nothing from the nations ‘go to’ agency – ‘New Zealand on Screen’ – is on my list. ‘New Zealand on Screen’ is a taxpayer-funded archive of all things film and television and the essential guide to New Zealand’s screen heritage.

 

NZ on Screen – List of Essential New Zealand Films:

 

Goodbye Pork Pie (1981)

Smash Palace (1981)

Utu (1983)

Vigil (1984)

The Piano (1993)

Heavenly Creatures (1994)

Once Were Warriors (1994)

Whale Rider (2002)

 

 

 

14 Films About New Zealand.

 

Beyond Reasonable Doubt (1983).

Dairy farmer Arthur Allen Thomas is accused of murdering his neighbours Harvey and Jeanette Crewe. The police can’t prove it so fix the evidence and have Thomas put away. Years of re-trails and government commissions follow before Thomas is finally set free and richly compensated.

For almost a decade this story gripped the nation and the whole sordid affair is neatly summed up in a film renowned film critic Roger Ebert called “remarkable”. The case has never been solved.

 

 

 

 

 

Bad Blood (1982).

Dairy farmer Stanley Graham is under pressure. He snaps and starts shooting people. Seven bodies later and Graham’s rampage is over. Based on actual events from the summer of 1941 this economical portrait of a man being undone by paranoia is a triumph for both British director Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) and Aussie actor Jack Thompson (Graham).

PS No accident that two of films on this list are set on dairy farms. Dairy is our biggest brand and the farm can be an interesting place. Worth a look is fantasy/romance The Price of Milk (2000) and sheep farming drama Mahana (2016). The latter features the endlessly reliable Temuera Morrison (Jake the Muss from Once Were Warriors).

 

 

 

 

 

Out Of The Blue (2006)

In 1998 a man wrestling with demons and paranoia starts shooting the people of Aramoana. David Grey prowls about the village taking pot shots at pursuing police while locals hide as best they can.

Harrowing and intense, this ‘based on actual events’ thriller, is a formative example of ‘the cinema of unease’, a term coined by Kiwi film star Sam Neil to describe the nations brooding film style.

 

 

 

Once Were Warriors (1994).

‘Jake The Muss’ is disenfranchised and drinking heavily. His emotional state is precarious, his temper is explosive and his shell-shocked family is riding his chaotic wake, their heads barely above water.

We flocked to the cinema in our droves to see the worst of ourselves writ large on the big screen. It was huge success critically, culturally and financially. Director Lee Tamahori turned New Zealand cinema on its head and actor Temuera Morrison gave the performance of a lifetime. This is not just a great NZ film; this is great cinema.

 

 

 

What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? (1999)

Though not the cinematic powerhouse of Once Were Warriors, sequel What Become of the Broken Hearted has its moments. Jake has calmed down but still struggles with demons and misdemeanours. When his past stands up and slaps him in the face one day he finds himself at a turning point. On offer is opportunity for redemption and he is of two minds. Despite its occasional slide into predictability the film has enough heart to carry it through to a satisfying conclusion.

 

 

 

Forgotten Silver (1995)

Peter Jackson (The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings) is a force of nature but before the big Hollywood blockbusters came a whole other career that includes a couple of splatter films, a musical helmed by foul mouthed puppets and art-cinema classic Heavenly Creatures, based on another ‘true life’ Kiwi murder.

The killing narrative, it seems, is a right of passage in Kiwi film and Jackson’s done it twice. Controversial The Lovely Bones (2009) was poorly received but it has its defenders including me.

Documentary Forgotten Silver explores the life of pioneering Kiwi filmmaker Colin McKenzie whose achievements included the invention colour and sound film. But there is more, so much more. McKenzie, it appears was a towering genius, confirming the unspoken truth about NZ, that we are indeed a special and blessed people.

It turned out to be a well-executed hoax that left many red-faced and others outraged. It is my favourite Jackson and joke aside, it is a well-made film.

 

 

 

The Locals (2003).

The Waikato is better known as the land that powers the nations behemoth Dairy Industry but it has also been the locale for two of the more interesting films made in this country. The regions capital serves as the backdrop for Geoff Murphy’s 1985 sci-fi mystery The Quiet Earth and the bucolic farmland is the canvas for Greg Page’s supernatural thriller The Locals.

Page migrated to the region from further South in his late youth and cut his teeth making music videos for Hamilton city bands. The Locals is the only feature film in his catalogue but sums up the regions landscape, atmosphere and culture with a clarity no one else has yet too match.

Page: “We wrapped the film and while we were in post-production I went off to see this new movie everyone was talking about and it had the same kind of twist ending as ‘The Locals’. I had been beaten to it.” He was talking about M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense.

The Locals is a smartly executed film full of ironic Kiwi sensibility. The soundtrack features superstar Waikato rockers The Datsuns and it flies by at a rapid rate of knots. Much like the Director himself. Criminally underrated it is well deserving of rediscovery and adulation.

 

 

 

The Devil Dared Me To (2007).

The dominant feature of Kiwi film humour is a strain of ironic absurdism not unlike that which you might find in Irish films and when you consider that some six hundred thousand out of a population of four and an half million claim Irish ancestry this seems a reasonable supposition.

As for the narrative: Stuntman Randy Campbell has a dream, he wants to become the world’s greatest stuntman by becoming the first person to leap across Cook on a motorcycle. Before his dream can be realised numerous obstacles have to overcome aka a classic hero’s quest. Base, absurdist, cheesy and surreal The Devil Dared Me Too is as warming as a petrol station pie on a cold day.

 

 

 

 

What We Do In The Shadows (2014).

Writer Director Taika Waititi has had a phenomenal run at the NZ box office and his films Boy (2010) Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) are the two biggest ever-grossing NZ films respectively.

What we do in the Shadows, made in collaboration with Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords), was also a big hit and possibly one of the best examples of the dry, ‘straight-faced’ style that dominates Kiwi humour. More cohesive and refined than The Devil Dared Me To it was an instant cult classic. Perhaps our best ‘cult’ product since Hamiltonian Richard O’Brien thought up The Rocky Horror Picture Show back in the late 1960s.

 

 

 

Desperate Remedies (1993).

This is not the kind of film I would choose to see off my own bat but when I asked Geoff Lealand (Associate Professor Film and Media Studies University of Waikato and all-round doyen of all thing cinematic in NZ) what his favourite Kiwi film was he said this.

A surreal psychodrama set in early colonial New Zealand it tastes like a ‘golden age’ MGM spectacular directed by Stanley Kubrick by way of Orson Welles with Ken Russell in as the production supervisor. The result is unique, imagine ‘splatter era’ Peter Jackson on opium. A grand testament to the tightly guarded madness lurking beneath the Kiwi facade.

 

 

 

Worlds Fastest Indian (2005).

Roger Donaldson was born in Australia and migrated to New Zealand (which is confusing in itself as the migration trend is mostly the other way around) and made two defining local films: Sleeping Dogs’ (1977) and Smash Palace (1981).

After a long Hollywood stint he returned to his adopted homeland for The World’s Fastest Indian’ in 2005. Invercargill Burt Munro’s and his Indian go to America and breaks’ a number of motorcycle speed records on the salt flats of Utah along the way. Welshman Anthony Hopkins manages a reasonable facsimile of the Kiwi accent while leading a charming Biopic that is as honest as the day is long.

 

 

 

Sleeping Dogs (1977).

Roger Donaldson’s first film arrived on the scene at the most opportune moment. New Zealand was in moving headlong into a period of social upheaval and many old values were being asked hard questions and found wanting. Authoritarian Prime Minister Robert Muldoon (the model for the PM in the film?) was leading the rear guard action and this usually peaceful and bucolic land was getting restless.

Smith (a somewhat startled looking Sam Neil in his first leading role) is a typically self-possessed Kiwi bloke reluctantly drawn into the fight against a dictatorial fascist government determined to maintain the hard line.

Based on C.K Stead’s 1971 novel Smith’s Dream, this is a parable that set the nation alight and allowed us to imagine ourselves in a different way. Paradigms shifted, new doors were cast wide open and the modern NZ Film Industry was born. What followed was beautiful chaos.

 

 

 

 

Angel At My Table (1993).

The strange life of NZ writer Janet Frame is explored with inventive flair by Kiwi acclaimed filmmaker Jane Campion (The Piano).

A critical and commercial success this biopic is a riveting portrait of an artist struggling to swim with the tide. Rather than go on, here is a poem by Frame written in the last years of her life. One of the better meditations I have encountered on the subject of ageing and death. The film maintains a narrative of similar quality.

 

When the Sun Shines More Years than Fear
– Janet Frame

When the sun shines more years than fear
when birds fly more miles than anger
when sky holds more bird
sails more cloud
shines more sun
than the palm of love carries hate,
even then shall I in this weary
seventy-year banquet say, Sunwaiter,
Birdwaiter, Skywaiter,
I have no hunger,
remove my plate.

 

 

 

 

Honourable Mention:

 

Came A Hot Friday (1985).

I was not taken by it at all when I saw it many decades ago but many of my peers rate it so out of respect for them and my love of all things Billy T James I have added to the list with the intention of watching it again soon. Based on a novel by Ronald Hugh Morrieson, Came a Hot Friday concerns a couple of Grfiters getting up to all kinds of mischief in Taranaki.

Something of a rogue, Morrieson was not well considered in his Taranaki hometown of Hawera and after he died they pulled down his house to make way for a McDonald’s hoping to expunge his memory from the record. In reality all the locals managed was make Morrieson more famous. All four of Morrison’s novels have been adapted for film, as have two of his short stories.

The film features the late great Billy T James as The Tainuia Kid. According to legend James’s was the Tainuia kid from the moment he arrived on set and remained that way till the shoot was over. James’s ‘Prankster’ character is a testament to the man’s subversive comedic genius.

https://www.nzonscreen.com/title/came-a-hot-friday-1984

 

 

Billy T James as the Tainuia Kid

 

On Coffee, Tobacco and Steve McQueen.

May 6, 2017

 

 

Some people think Decaf is coffee. I am not so sure. Tea has caffeine but is not coffee and neither is beer, though it might as well be. Give me sunshine or coffee? I’ll take the latter – Roma style, (that’s ‘very dark roast’). Sun cannot outshine that. It’s the flavour the Decaf kids tell me, “It’s about the flavour!”

 

On Saturday at boarding school we were herded into the gymnasium to watch a movie inadequately displayed on a white canvas screen (home video was still a decade away). They asked me to choose the films once. It was supposed to be for the year it lasted a month.

I was picking stuff I’d been reading about in the newspaper but I didn’t take into account the whole censorship thing and after a few screenings the Brothers decided I was a liability and stripped me of my status as the film guy. I missed the weekly trip into the city to select the films from the warehouse and I missed the kudos that came with the job.

Later I became the music guy. Otherwise ‘persona non grata’ I was well read and if anyone wanted to know anything about a song or artist I was the guy. Once a kid sidled up to me and said, “I know its uncool but I like Abba. I reckon they are pretty good. Is that alright do you think?” I said yes but we both knew better than to say it out loud.

I remember Joe Cocker raging his away across the ill lit canvas in a concert flick called Mad Dogs and Englishman. I was thirteen years old and none of it made much sense. The supervising Brother spent a lot time with his hand over the projector lens during The Godfather. I had picked that film. I thought the horse head in the bed scene quite shocking and never quite got over it. He was more interested in protecting us from the sight of ‘sexy ladies’.

The best gym moment ever was Steve McQueen driving over the horizon in his big American beast car towing a horse trailer. He stops at a diner at the edge of a desert and refills on coffee and cigarettes while thinking about the next paying gig. I was a loner myself  and decided Steve McQueen’s Junior Bonner was a loner worth emulating.

Directed by Sam Peckinpah Junior Bonner was not one of his usual things. Peckinpah was the shot em up king. No, more than that, he was an artist and his violence was beauteously studied. Junior Bonner was a character flick and quite a departure for the man. Of its failure to fire at the box office Peckinpah said, “I made a film where nobody got shot and nobody went to see it.”

In the Documentary film I am Steve McQueen (2014) Steve is painted as a restless soul, an intelligent self-involved Renaissance man with a destructive bent, McQueen did it his way or not at all. The establishment accepted that about him because he was box office gold. Lesser personalities would not have been able to get away with half as much I imagine.

I wanted to be just like him for longer than necessary. I rode my motorcycle hard and fast like he did and I drank black coffee and smoked cigarettes like Junior Bonner and dreamt of the wealth that came with great fame. I equated wealth with freedom. Many years later I realised that freedom was mostly a state of mind. A little cash helps but too much and that house of cards becomes a prison. My favourite ever Steve McQueen is Papillon (1973), a harrowing film that explores the harsh French prison system as it was for a time. McQueen is relentless in the lead role.

 

Back in 1960 -70s New Zealand it seemed that everyone smoked except my Dad. Our house was dominated by women and for ever so long I thought that smoking was a female thing until one day we were out in the car and passed by a farmer herding sheep, a smoke dangling from his lips. “Look Dad” I said excitedly, “that man is smoking”. Noel then explained that men smoked too. I found that hard to accept.

Second hand smoke from Mum, Aunties and Grandmothers – I loved it. I would inhale it and exalt in the heady rush but mostly I would stare at the blue plumes drifting up and about the car, the living room or wherever it was we were. The smoke shifting in the tidal air currents was a kind of artistry as was the way the cigarettes were held, waved about and stubbed. Everyone had a method and my mothers mannerisms were especially stylish I thought.

Of course I took it up as soon as I could and by age twenty I was a seasoned smoker. It was my bulwark against a cruel and confusing world for which I was little enabled and with that cigarette sitting between me and everyone else I felt safe. I promised to love tobacco forever. Forever lasted until six months ago when I just stopped and that was that. It was easy really and I have only looked back twice when I caged a couple of rollies off a mate just to see. Yes they were delicious but I had lost the love. Where did it go? I have no idea.

Smoking looks glamorous in the movies but in reality it stinks, clinging to clothes and breath in the most ungainly way and the people who smoke heavily don’t look great. One of my favourite film stars Humphrey Bogart died from a smoking related cancer, and painfully so it is told. Over the years you can see this chain-smoking matinee star loose his lustre as his skin dried up and puckered.

Happened to a whole slew of generations who smoked themselves to death. Long before the authorities got in on the act people intuitively knew it wasn’t great. ‘Smoke Smoke that Cigarette’ goes a hit song from 1947 – ‘Puff, puff, puff and smoke yourself to death/Tell St. Peter at the Golden Gate/That you hates to make him wait/You’ve gotta have another cigarette’.

But that’s what cigars are for, a taste from time to time. God help you though if you get a ‘real liking’ for those bastards. True, you can’t draw the strong smoke down into your lungs, which is why people think they’re the ‘safe option’, but puffing causes cancer too. Sadly.

My grandmother’s cousin Old Kamali died when he was ninety-five. He grew his own tobacco in an allotment on the outskirts of Suva and after curing rolled it into cigars that he chain-smoked from his perch under the eaves of his house. My grandmother, died in her late eighties. A lifetime smoker of cigarettes she was a ‘puffer’ like Kamali. So was I.

I had my lungs checked a while back and they were clean. I was both surprised and pleased but this had nothing to do with my giving it away. They both might have lived longer had they not been smokers someone once suggested to me. I thought that an odd statement given their overall longevity.

 

 

I like my coffee ‘very dark roast’. That’s a certain variety of bean burned and then finely ground (not all beans can stand up to a heavy roast). Get the espresso grind. The filter grind does about as good a job as ‘tits on a bull’ as a friend used to say. The finer the grind the more intense the end result.

I use a one-cup drip filter device, a two-dollar plastic thing that fits over the top of a mug. Place a filter paper into device, add some coffee, pour in some boiling water and as soon as the top of the heat has drifted off, it’s ready for sipping (the brew needs to cool a little for the myriad flavours to become fully apparent). No milk, nor sugar – these things ruin it.

My brand of choice is Robert Harris (a big commercial roaster), their bold Italian and Roma styles being a perfect fit for my sensibilities. ‘Very dark roast’ coffee has none of the astringency of lighter roasts. I am not a fan of this ‘astringent’ quality but many are. I like it bold and gold, angst and man, burnt caramel and bitter carbon. Many don’t.

Food is our medicine it is said and I medicate readily. Eating is a game as much about pleasure as it is about nutrition. Sometime part of the pleasure of eating is knowing that you are looking after yourself. Sometimes you can’t help yourself and that is pleasurable also.

Tobacco, beer and coffee: Only one of these is bad for you. Spent coffee grounds should go to the compost. Plants, earthworms, beneficial fungi and bacteria love em. Got no garden? Then feed the compost to a public tree or shrub somewhere. Caffeine is essential so if you ever see me drinking Decaff then you’ll know the decline has set in. Life without narcotics is a life half lived and flavour is only part of the equation.

 

Film Essay: The Wicker Man and Why it is One of the Best Ever British Films.

April 23, 2017

Christopher Lee (Lord Summerisle)

We are browsing the JB Hi-Fi on Barton Street in Hamilton when I happen across The Wicker Man – The Directors Cut. I turn to Steve and ask if he has seen it. “Yeah. It was bloody awful. I hate Nicolas Cage and that stupid thing with the bees at the end…….” I have no idea what he’s talking about but the clue is on the display right there in front of me. I pull it down and see it’s a remake. I had no idea. “Nah, I’m not talking about that, I am talking about this,” I say thrusting the DVD case at him. He glances at the cover and blurb on the back. “Any good?” he asks.

“Good?” I say. “It’s a bloody masterpiece. One of ten greatest British films ever.” Then unable to help myself I launch into the story of Robin Hardy (1929-2016) and his remarkable film. As I am finishing up we are approached by a late middle-ager who says, “I don’t mean to interrupt but I overheard your conversation and thought I might introduce myself.” He turns out to be one of Robin Hardy’s sons (one of eight Hardy siblings), an English implant into Hawkes Bay who is in Hamilton on business. “Dad is making a sequel as we speak”. I went home and Googled it and sure enough he was.

The Wicker Tree was released in 2011 but I only lasted until through to the fifteen minute mark. It was dull and plodding and though the retrograde stylistic homage to late 1960s Hammer films was intriguing it was wasn’t enough to keep me locked in. Still it hardly mattered. Hardy made three films, the other being the underwhelming 1986 serial killer thriller The Fantasist, but to have directed something as singular and wondrous as The Wicker Man (1973) – described by one critic as the Citizen Kane of horror films – is achievement enough for anyone in my book.

 

Christopher Lee (1922-2015) made over two hundred films in a career that spanned six decades. Best know for his work at Hammer Horror, he also managed to fit in  numerous big money franchises like Star Wars, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and Bond.

The Wicker Man was Edward Woodward’s vehicle not Lee’s, but Lee’s compelling second act performance as Lord Summerisle (leader of a Pagan cult) helps to lift the film to heights it might have missed with a less idiosyncratic actor. Lee called it “My best film” and received no pay for his performance. (The studio was in trouble and such was his belief in the project that he did whatever he could to see it through). Lee’s faith in the film was such that his endorsement kept the legend alive through those years where it might have disappeared into the void. And it came close.

Hardy’s finished product met the same fate of as many distinctive films often do with the studio demanding some ‘narrative adjustments’ to make the film ‘more commercial’ as well as insisting that some twenty minutes be cut from the length. Hardy reluctantly agreed to most of this though he stood firm against changing the ending to ‘something a little more upbeat’.

Dismayed by the final result Hardy began his campaign to restore the film to its original form in the mid-1970s but had to wait until 2001 when French studio Canal+ acquired the international distribution rights and proved sympathetic to his cause. But he faced numerous hurdles, the least of which was loss of much of the source material. In the end various film prints and video versions provided Hardy with all the requisite scenes and a restored narrative was released in 2013.

 

 

Edward Woodward  (Sergent Howie)

Edward Woodward (1930-2009) was the chain-smoking star of hit British TV spy thriller Callan (1967-72) and was chosen for the lead role of Sergent Howie ahead of name film stars like Michael York and David Hemmings. He was a surprising choice but his ability to maintain a state of ‘controlled intensity’ throughout the film was the perfect fit for the virtuous Sergent who is sent to an isolated island in the Scottish Hebrides to investigate the disappearance of a girl. His quest for truth becomes a trail of the soul as his Christian faith goes head to head with humanities darkest primordial tendencies. Summerisle is not the rural idyll it appears to be.

In a way The Wicker Man is a take on the Biblical New Testament story of the forty dark days and nights of the soul Jesus spent in the desert as he tried to come to terms with who and what he was. A virtuous man otherwise disinterested in ‘worldly’ things is tempted by a immoral force determined to break him for the sheer satisfaction of the act and Howie is sorely tempted, most notably by Willow the innkeepers daughter (all kinds of metaphors at work here) played by Britt Ekland, the films other notable star turn.

Bond girl and relic of an age when female stars were blatantly marketed for their sex appeal, those are indeed “my breasts” on display she confirmed in a 2013 interview “but not my bottom. I was never comfortable with my bottom – it was a bit big – and my contract stipulated that I was not to be filmed from behind for the nude dancing scenes. I was a shocked when they hired a someone to be my bottom double”. The film was not a great experience for her and the ‘go to sex symbol’ of her time was baffled by both Lee and Woodward who showed no interest in her naked body during the shoot. “Dour men” she said of them. That aside, she is excellent in the film and certainly more than the sum of her ‘parts’.

 

 

Britt Ekland (Willow)

But a successful film is more its Director and cast. It is a happy confluence of talent, which in this case included the cinematographer Harry Waxman (Brighton Rock 1947), choice of film stock (the super-heightened colour tone of the film offers an appropriate otherworldly sensation that accentuates the rural idyll of Summerisle), film editor, producer and of course, the writer.

Anthony Shaffer (1926-2001) was skilled screenwriter and author (Hitchcock’s Frenzy 1972, classic thriller Sleuth 1972 and Hollywood mega hit Sommersby 1993 are among his works) who adapted David Pinners novel Ritual for the film while successfully blending in elements from The Golden Bough – anthropologist James Frazer’s classic study of mythology and religion. But this list excludes one notable element, the music. Yes, halfway through what was becoming a ‘fraught’ production Hardy announced to one and all that from this point on he was making a musical.

One the films grand delights is the soundtrack, which was finally released as a standalone album in 1998, a mono version lifted straight off the film. In 2002 everything was finally set right and Paul Giovanni’s (1933-1990) eclectic collection of instrumentals and songs (some traditional and others composed especially for the film) were properly rendered, mixed and mastered in glorious stereo. One of the standout tracks Willow’s Song has gone onto to find of a life of its own and has been covered by numerous artists including the Mediæval Bæbes, Doves, Faith and the Muse, Isobel Campbell, and the Sneaker Pimps.

 

The Maypole Song from The Wicker Man 1972

 

 

Willow’s Song From The Wicker Man 1972 – Performed by Britt Ekland sung by Rachel Verney.

 

By the end of the 1960s, the cult of L.S.D had irreconcilably altered the minds of young filmmakers, set designers, writers and cinematographers. The camera had been ripped from the tripod and caution had been thrown to the wind. This new wave of cinema was examining society in ways that previous generations of filmmakers could only have envisioned in their wildest musings.

The Wicker Man is a confronting lysergic hallucination that explores the dark recesses of the human psyche but more than that it purposely eschews the blood, gore and guts of the standard horror format in favour of something more insidious – an exposition of traditional superstitious mores that can twist and warp a communities sensibilities to the point where community has itself becomes the beast it is seeking to contain through its ritual.

The films conclusion is shocking but compelling. Your eyes are drawn into the spectacle and while some part of you is horrified at what you are seeing, another part is gleefully rejoicing in the insanity of it all. More than a just a ‘horror’, this is a subversive, artful and daring psychological exposition. Otherwise it is just plain bonkers and I mean this as a compliment.

After The Wicker Man Woodward tackled Australian Boer War biopic Breaker Morant (1980) to great acclaim before heading to America where as McCall, a kind of vigilante good guy, he filled the drivers seat of hit TV series The Equalizer from 1985-89. Hardy was working on the third and final instalment of what he was calling the ‘Wicker Trilogy’ in 2016 when he died suddenly aged 86.

As for the film, why is it so great? As neatly as Citizen Kane deconstructed the American dream so does The Wicker Man similarly examine Britain’s self-eulogising mythology. Sometimes the ‘actuality’ is best examined as metaphor and The Wicker Man exhumes the entirety of a people succinctly and says hardly a literal word in the process. That takes some doing. Like Citizen Kane – widely regarded as on of the best three of four films ever made – The Wicker Man is a unique, daring and innovative and like Kane it is a joy to watch over and again with something new to discover with each new pass. Should be more widely celebrated than it is.

 

 

Film Essay: ‘From the Power and the Glory’ to ‘Citizen Kane’.

April 12, 2017

 

 

 

Spencer Tracy made 75 films, was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, (he won twice for Best Actor) and remained until his death in 1967 a major box office draw. Without rhyme or reason his name popped into my head prompting a flood of memories from my youth when on a Sunday afternoon it was my habit to lie down in front of the TV and watch old movies. In late 1960s New Zealand there was only one TV channel and Sunday afternoons were devoted to the golden age of Hollywood. This might have been my favourite time of the week.

With Spencer dancing about my head I was overcome with nostalgia for a style of film that had a profound influence on the way I viewed the world. Suddenly I found myself longing for a cadence of speech, style of dress and for colloquial terms now faded from popular culture. For sweeping orchestral scores credited to names like Bernard Herman and Alfred Newman, for crisp black and white cinematography, for stories with rich moral lessons and soundtracks that crackled and hissed.

As for Tracy himself, I had vague memories of two films, Boys Town and Woman of the Year and of an actor imbued with more natural humanity than most. Turning to Wikipedia for more information I discovered this marvellous quote from his long time lover and fellow actor (and Woman of the Year co-star) Katherine Hepburn:

On June 10, 1967, 17 days after completing Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Tracy awakened at 3:00 am to make himself a cup of tea in his apartment in Beverly Hills, California. Hepburn described in her autobiography how she followed him to the kitchen: “Just as I was about to give [the door] a push, there was a sound of a cup smashing to the floor—then clump—a loud clump.” She entered the room to find Tracy dead from a heart attack. Hepburn recalled, “He looked so happy to be done with living, which for all his accomplishments had been a frightful burden for him.”

It is an interesting observation about a man who for millions was a larger than life figure who apparently ‘had it all’ and it occurred to me that if anyone were to ask I would reply that this is exactly how I felt about things. Suddenly I felt an urgent desire to spend some time with this man and converse with him about life.

I went online and explored Spencer’s filmography and settled on the 1933 film The Power and Glory described by its Wikipedia entry as the narrative prototype for Citizen Kane, (a film widely recognised by filmmakers and critics as one the greatest films ever made). This piqued my interest being the fan of the latter as I am. On that note, thank the gods for the Internet for the film was easily found and moments later a relic of the electrical/mechanical age of filmmaking was playing out digitally.

 

The Power and the Glory was written by Preston Sturges and for his first screenplay he was payed the extraordinary sum of $17,500 and notably, given a profit share which at the time was highly unusual and controversial (especially with other writers who now began to examine their own contracts and wonder how they could get a piece of this potentially lucrative action).

Sadly for Sturges, who was on the cusp of a glittering career, the film limped through its initial release and he made a spare $2000 from the deal. However the film was singled out by critics for its use of a highly unusual narrative structure (flashbacks) and the studio recognising the originality at work in the screenplay placed a plaque commemorating the films pioneering method on the New York theatre where it debuted and over the next few years its reputation grew as did the profits.

The story of Railroad Tycoon Tom Garner (Tracy) begins with his funeral revealing a man who is regarded with mixed feelings and whose suicide is for many a cause for celebration. This poses a series of questions, notably why was he so hated (or ‘misunderstood’ it is argued by his assistant and best friend Henry), and how did it all go so wrong?

Flashback structure aside, the screenplay is by and large fairly standard. Director William K Howard’s style is hardly remarkable and the cinematography is mostly nothing out of box but behind this camera is the great James Wong Howe (two Oscars for cinematography but at an early stage in his career here) and every now again an image or sequence leaps of the screen with such intensity that one can imagine a young Orson Welles sitting in a theatre soaking it all up and storing it away in his imagination for future consideration. As for the script itself, though perceptive, the dialogue fails to sparkle in a way that anyone familiar with Sturges later work should expect.

That said everything that would later manifest in Welles’s polished portrait of media tycoon Charles Foster Kane is a there. Welles plays Kane in a remarkably similar to the way Tracy plays Garner: with verve, wit and constant smile that suggest both men understand the great secret of life – that it is absurd.

Kane funds his empire via an inherited goldmine that has struck the motherlode and the unambitious Garner finds his muse via his wife, a woman of vision and the will to make it happen. These men are accidental tycoons and are, in varying degrees, aware of the ludicrousness that underlines their public image. The self-knowing secret smile fades as both men find themselves overcome by a creeping narcissism born from their privileged isolation.

As for Spencer Tracy, his presence alone is reason enough to enjoy The Power and the Glory and as the final scene plays out we understand, by way of Tracy’s innate humanity, that Garner is an unfortunate man whose best potential was wasted in the pursuit of wealth and power, the same condition Kane finds him self in as he sits alone in his grand mansion Xanadu surrounded by material excess and a life unfulfilled.

 

For a while I worked behind the counter of a DVD store that catalogued films by director. It was a frequent haunt for media students from the local Polytechnic and University seeking out films they had been recommended by their tutors, most notably Welles’s Citizen Kane which they had been told time and again was among the greatest film narratives ever conceived and a must see for any serious student of film.

It’s surprising how often they would return the film and remark that they could not understand what was so special about it. Of course not, they had seen it all before because the techniques that Welles had pioneered had long since become standard. What they needed to understand was that Welles had taken all that had come before and re-imagined it; in the process changing forever after the way filmic stories were told.

The Power and the Glory is a diverting and interesting historical artefact but Citizen Kane is astonishing. From beginning to end, through scene after scene, it sparkles with inventive dynamism and I thank The Power and the Glory for bringing me back to a film I thought I knew well but didn’t. There is so much going on that it is like exploring the night sky without reference point or telescope. What is this film and how did it come to be? The Power and the Glory provides some of those answers. And as for Tracy, our conversation was excellent and I will be watching more of his films as time allows.

 

The Power and the Glory Directed by William K Howard (1933)

 

Citizen Kane: Trailer (1940). Directed by Orson Welles

 

*In 2014, The Power and the Glory was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. 

 

Zombies, Existential Dread and The Girl with all the Gifts.

April 11, 2017

Early on in the film discovery phase of my life I happened upon George A Romero’s landmark Zombie Trilogy. All at once clever, disturbing and satirical these films were a delight and I have watched them many times since but as the Zombie phenomenon broke out into mainstream I realised I was less a fan of Zombies than I was of Romero and while I have dipped into some of the more popular shows and films nothing bar the British movies 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later have sustained my attention…… until now.

I was out walking when I happened across Unity Books (Central Auckland) and decided to go inside. I must have walked passed the place a hundred times and while I often stopped to look in at the window display I was never going any further as book buying is no longer my thing.

When I was younger and earning better I used to buy lots of books. I loved the excitement of book discovery and outlined of my personal space with a display I imagined explained to visitors something of my inner world. Considering I had few visitors the whole thing ended up seeming a little vain and frivolous so one fine day I packed all my books down and left them out in public space for people to take.

Thinking I had done some great deed I drove back to have a look an hour later to find a group of shabby looking kids kicking them about and throwing screeds of torn pages into the air. In retrospect nothing less than my vanity deserved.

I am well pleased that phase of life is over and I have since learned that the value of the books most precious to me lies in the memory of the experience not in the possession of the hardcopy. But there I was in a bookstore and I saw they had a Sci-Fi section, which pleased me no end this genre being my first love and all and because I had this impression that bookshops devoted to literature largely eschew the format out of a misguided sense that it just isn’t worthy enough.

Iconic NZ Broadcaster and literature fan Kim Hill certainly thinks so, I have heard her say it more than a few times over the years, and her opinion isn’t so unusual. I remember walking into a grand looking bookshop in Wellington a few years back and after a look about asked if they had a Sci-Fi section. The response was bemused blinking that left me feeling a bit inadequate. I scarpered and spent my money elsewhere.

As for the genre itself, it is actually a mixture of things that includes fantasy, dystopian futurism, space opera, social and technological speculation, time travel and Zombie narratives. So there I was running my fingers across the book spines when a title caught my eye. I pulled it out and balanced it in my hands and knew that I was going to read it and like it. I jotted down the title: The Girl with all the Gifts and decided to order it from the library. Sorry Unity but at almost $40 it was well beyond my means.

 

 

Book Review: The Girl with all the Gifts

By M.R. Carey.

7/10 Stars.

 

An infection has crossed the globe turning humans into mindless hosts for a parasitic life form that craves protein. These creatures stand about waving in the wind until a movement or scent from a warm living thing triggers them into action then its all running, clawing hands and tearing teeth. The few remaining humans have nicknamed them ‘Hungries’. If you have ever seen 28 Days Later you’ll have the idea.

The uninfected have retreated to a couple of protected enclaves including a research facility where Dr Caroline Caldwell is seeking a vaccine by dissecting and experimenting on the body parts of the infected but not just any old infected. He team has discovered children who have been infected but maintain something of their humanity.

These children are a striking new mutation and involved in the research is teacher and psychologist Helen Justineau whose job involves trying to understand their nature. Are they still human? Caldwell thinks not as she obsessively takes them apart with surgical tools. Justineau is not so sure and her emotional bond with a girl called Melanie is complicating things at the facility.

As for Sergent Parks, the guy who runs the day-to-day operations at Hotel Echo, these kids are dangerous, after all he is the guy who discovered them and has had first hand experience of just how overwhelming their hunger for flesh can be. He and Justineau are not seeing eye-to-eye and as far is Justineau is concerned Caldwell is out of control.

The kids are imprisoned and when required are strapped securely into wheelchairs and ferried about the facility. By and by it all goes wrong and Parks, Justineau, Caldwell, a soldier called Gallagher and Melanie (test subject number one because of her extraordinary intellectual abilities) find themselves on the run across the barren wasteland that is now the British countryside in a desperate attempt to reach Beacon and safety. Caldwell needs Melanie for her research, Melanie is attached to Justineau (the only human who has ever shown her any care), and the others just want to survive.

The Girl With All the Gifts is a spare and neatly observed novel that follows in the grand tradition of Romero’s groundbreaking original Zombie film Night of the Living Dead centered on a group of disparate people thrust together by circumstance and trying to find a way forward against increasingly insurmountable odds. M.R Carey is a novelist whose main source of income has been writing for comics (X-Men for Marvel as well as numerous projects for D.C) and graphic novels. The tight narrative structure required for this type of prose has shaped him into an economical wordsmith who knows how to spin a compelling yarn without wasting space.

The book is a reliable page turner with a well considered plot and neatly drawn characters that respects the readers intelligence and left me thinking that good writing is good writing regardless of the genre. To hell with literature snobs – Zombies make just as good a backdrop for tales of the human condition as do the sorts of themes and settings favoured by actual proper writers.

 

 

Film review: The Girl With All The Gifts (2015)

Directed by Colm McCarthy

6-10 Stars

Okay, now I have read the book I had to take a look at the film which turns out to be very much in that tradition kicked off by Danny Boyles genius film 28 Days Later (2002) and its follow up 28 Weeks Later (2007). The Girl With All the Gifts could well have been titled ‘28 Years Later’ judging by the overgrown cityscapes our little band of adventurers are wandering across as they head for the sanctuary of Beacon.

In actuality we are only eight years out from the initial outbreak but the huge mature trees filling the streets of London suggest a timeframe more in line with decades rather than a decade. The landscape is actually the abandoned Pripyat City in the heart of the Chernobyl exclusion zone whose brutalist Sovietism is not London by any stretch of the imagination. Nice try but it does serve to make the film feel a little B-Grade, as in low budget. They would have been better off sticking to those neatly rendered CGI images of an overgrown London that otherwise worked so well.

The rest of it is filmed on sets and the results are quaint rather than convincing reminding me of the TV shows I grew up watching in the late 1960s. I am thinking Star Trek, Lost in Space and Land of the Giants – all formed on soundstages with sets that are inexpensive and suggestive rather than comprehensive. Maybe this was purposeful stylistic decision?

The cast is a neat list of top line character actors including Glenn Close as the Dr Mengele like Caldwell, the ever-reliable Paddy Constantine (Dead Mans Shoes) as Sergent Parks and Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace) as Justineau. They do a fine job with what they have. Melanie is helmed by an earnest Sennia Nanua whose uneven performance takes the edge of things, if only a little.

The film mostly stays true to a book written for easy big screen translation but for reasons unknown the production team have has eschewed some essential plot elements leaving the film structure feeling a little flimsy. In the book the fall of Hotel Echo is a an event which tells us a larger story about the state of the world as it stands but in the film version the security fences are clumsily knocked down by Hungries after being perfectly adequate for many, many months. Expedient but clumsy.

The director Colm McCarthy is an episodic TV director and struggles a bit with the longer format of a feature film. The Girl with all the Gifts lacks sustained tension (sadly so because the book hums along like fire on a fuse) and dramatic flair. A friend had seen it before I did and her opinion pretty much sums up my own: ”It’s ok”. Still there is potential for more from this loose franchise and that would be nice. The British do post-apocalyptic better than most.

 

What Others Are Saying:

It’s a film for people who thought they never needed to sit through another zombie flick. It’s also quite likely the strangest entry that will ever appear on Glenn Close’s IMDB page’.

– Chris Nashawatay Entertainment Weekly

 

‘A wicked, gory and even occasionally funny take on George A. Romero’.

– Barry Hertz Globe and Mail.

 

Epilogue:

I am remembering how much I loved post-apocalyptic scenarios in my youth, a strange dislocated time when I feared my natural lonerist tendencies. In my less guarded moments I dreamt of long walks through cityscapes returned to nature. It was silent and abstract world and I was happily adrift in it. There were never any Zombies, thrills, adventure or other people. My post-apocalyptic landscape was all about the mystical unconscious.

So what is the attraction of the Zombie besides the obvious scare fest? Could it be down to some existential dread based on the loss of individuality? Whatever it is, it’ a popular theme and a reliable moneymaker. The other big player here is the body-snatching genre; that’s when ethereal alien beings take over the individual’s body, eliminate the consciousness and turn it into a vessel for themselves.

Stephenie Meyer’s (the Twilight series) The Host is a modern classic (though the sputtering 2013 film adaptation by Kiwi Andrew Niccol is not). Of the several other films originating from Jack Finney’s 1954 Sci-Fi novel The Body Snatchers the best are the 1958 and 1978 titled Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Both are perfectly realised and are a ‘must see’ for those so inclined. The 1978 film features Leonard Nimoy as a charismatic cult psychiatrist and a brilliantly hysterical Donal Sutherland as a City Health Inspector on a mission to save the world from creeping threat. The final reveal is a classic.

 

 

Film Review: Arrival (Director Denis Villeneuve)

November 12, 2016

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I love Science Fiction and when I say Sci-Fi I do not mean space operas or fantasy, I mean speculative Sci-Fi – stories about ideas, technology and grand narratives that explore the potential of the future as well as the mysteries of existence. I am also partial to uplifting narratives that fill me with hope and confirm my faith in the best of humanity.

Books and TV adequately fulfil my need for these kinds of stories but films not so much. Mostly I have been disappointed by big screen sci-fi which tends toward the fantastical and bombastic but I never give up trying because every now and again a filmmaker nails it and the result is deeply affirming.

My favourite Sci-Fi films are in rough order:

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick 1968)

Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner 1968)

A.I – Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg 2001)

Contact (Robert Zemeckis 1997)

Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky 1979)

Star Trek – First Contact (Jonathan Frakes 1996)

Cloud Atlas ( The Wachowskis/Tom Tykwer 2012)

Things To Come (William Cameron Menzies 1936)

These films have inspired, educated, impressed and left me a little better for the experience and as I approached the cinema I wondered if ‘Arrival’ would fulfil the promise of its trailer, which hinted at a carefully drawn ideas driven narrative with an Auteur’s touch.

The first thing I want to say is how fine an actress Amy Adams is. She won my admiration with her measured and deeply nuanced performance in P.T Anderson’s beautiful and perceptive 2012 film ‘The Master’ and continues on with this vein in ‘Arrival’ playing a language expert trying to communicate with abstruse Alien visitors.

As for those Alien visitors, not since Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’ has an off planet intelligence been so profoundly realised. Thrown aside are all the standard ‘life from other planet’ clichés along with vast space travelling vessels and all the usual nefarious motives. Here it is all profoundly re-imagined and the result is mind bending and perfectly in touch with the cutting edge of speculative science. This species did not come all this way for conquest (as they mostly do) they came for dialogue but first we have to deal with the shock, fear and anxiety which is understandable in light of initial communication difficulties and potential for misunderstanding.

‘Arrival’ – especially in light of its heroic female protagonist – parallels ‘Contact’ the Carl Sagan written and Robert Zemeckis directed 1997 film. There are attempts to destroy the aliens, rising social tensions and chaotic anarchy as frightened people demand answers in the face of paradigm changing mystery. The parallels between the films do not end here with time twisting scenarios and a  journey of personal discovery to the fore. As for the visitors vessel and the overarching air of mystery, the director Denis Villeneuve gives a very big nod to the greatest of all Sci-Fi films, Kubrick’s ‘2001’.

Otherwise ‘Arrival’ is a powerful film especially with its boldly imaginative examination of how intelligent life may have evolved on planets unlike earth while investigating humanities own worst xenophobic tendencies, an interesting theme in light of Donal Trumps recent ascendency to the American throne. Inventive direction, a beautifully rendered screenplay, creative cinematography and fine performances overcome the only flaw, the somewhat ordinary score.

Due to the contained and dreamy nature of the visuals I felt a little more silence and subtlety might have served things better. That said, my companion felt quite the opposite and also revelled in the closing scene which felt a bit like overcooked art-house to me. I will need to see it again, but judging by the amount of time I spent squirming in my seat with emotions set alight, I have a sneaking suspicion that this might  be one of the great sci-fi movies. Time will be the judge of that, regardless, it is what the big screen version of the genre sorely needs more of – inspiring and provocative narratives dedicated to the cause of the human spirit.

 

Film Review: Mahana

September 24, 2016

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    Akuhata Keefe as Simeon Mahana

Mahana (Temuera Morrison) rules his whanau with an iron fist but one of the grandchildren Simeon (an affecting performance by Akuhata Keefe) is not content to settle for the status quo and his probing questions begin to threaten the stability of clan Mahana.

From the team that brought us the turning point in modern New Zealand cinema ‘Once Were Warriors’ comes a new film about being Maori in Pakeha land. ‘Mahana’ plays out over the last days of the 1950s on the North Islands East Cape. This was a time of flourishing rural communities dedicated to the task of harvesting wool and sheep meat. It was a time of tough men and hard working women and when the divide between Maori and Pakeha (sadly only lightly explored) was more pronounced.

Writer Whiti Ihimaera (‘Whale Rider’) draws on his own childhood to create a sense of time and place and if you have ever read any of his autobiographical work you will recognize the characters and social landscape straightaway. Having mapped it out he leaves it to fellow East Coaster Lee Tamahori to bring it to life.

Tamahori is a practiced and talented director (check out the opening car chase scene – it is stunner) and a fine visual artist. The vistas are beautiful, the visual set pieces are inspired and the period detail evocative (and through the course of the film he takes the time to explore his own childhood love of American cinema adding some nice flavour and insight) but this film about intergenerational angst and social conformity feels a little underplayed at times.

Yes, it’s a bit thin places and some of the characterisation settles for one-dimensional when it required a touch more care. It is all a little formulaic with something of the Disney about it though that company might have shied from something as confronting as the historical rape upon which clan Mahana is built.  This is not the social statement of ‘Once Were Warriors’ (for fans, Tem does employ something of his trademark ‘explosive temper’ to shocking effect) but it is a diverting exploration of family powers structures and social conservatism. Engaging and often quite moving (I shed a tear at the right places) ‘Mahana’ is a worthwhile edition to the cannon of those local films dedicated to examining our nations cultural history. Essential it is not but may trigger some interest among new generations to whom 1950s New Zealand is a alien planet.

Film Review: Glen Campbell: ‘I’ll Be Me’

September 15, 2016

 

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I was 7 years old when Glen Campbell’s ‘Try a Little Kindness’ hit the New Zealand airwaves. It peaked at number four on the local charts and later featured on the second volume of what would become an iconic compilation series called ‘20 Solid Gold Hits’. We had that record and I remember playing the song and over, liking the melody and the words but mostly liking Glen’s voice. I think my favourite Campbell song was and still is ‘Galveston’ and the album it was off became the first record I ever bought. I also loved ‘Wichita Linesman’, ‘By the time I get to Phoenix’, ‘Gentle on my Mind’, ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’, ‘Southern Nights’, actually there was very little I didn’t like.

I loved those deft guitar lines, the ones that for a long time made him the king of L.A session guitarists, but mostly I loved that voice. It was steady and pure and he knew how to express complex emotions in a simple and straightforward manner but of all his vocal qualities it was his phrasing that affected me the most. He knew exactly how to pitch a word and where to sit it in the melody, a gift that separates the good singers from the truly great ones.

Beyond all that the man was a natural performer. There were no affectations, just a simple country boy on stage entertaining the folks with easy self-deprecating humour and amusing one liners and of course those sublime instrumental skills. Watch him play ‘Classical Gas’ in his 2001 ‘In Concert with the South Dakota Symphony in Sioux Falls’ and marvel. What a show that was, the man was on fire but there was something odd about his voice and the less generous suggested that he had fallen off the wagon.

 

 

Alcohol had been a problem for a time but it turned out not to be the problem here. What we were seeing were the first indications that all was not right with his brain. A while later he and his family announced to the world that Glen was with Alzheimer’s, a diagnosis that marked the beginning of a merciless descent into living oblivion.

The documentary film ‘I’ll Be Me’ chronicles his last tour, the ‘Glen Campbell Goodbye Tour’ which started out to promote the 2011 album ‘Ghost on the Canvas’ and ended up as a crusade highlighting a disorder which is causing ever more grief to ever more people with each passing year and is predicted to reach epidemic proportions in coming decades.

This film was a painful experience and part of me wishes I hadn’t seen it. Who wants to see their heroes so badly blighted, a consideration the Campbell family examined deeply and carefully before they agreed to the process, but there he was and for the first round of the 107 odd shows he was pretty good but by the time the family pulled the plug it was getting messy.

Glen was becoming a waking caricature of himself, his behaviour erratic and disturbing. The truth is never easy but there it was in full-blown colour. There were tributes from the glitterati (everyone from Springsteen to well, everyone) but mostly there was Campbell’s family (who were also his tour band) doing the best they could in a thankless situation. This was no celebration of a mans life, this was an unapologetic chronicle of tarnished reality, though everyone was trying their best to grin and bear it for the cameras at least. I can only imagine the tears, grief, despair and frustration behind the scenes.

As for Campbell, well I couldn’t feel too bad for him. He was pretty unaware of it most of the time, living from moment to moment as he was, a dwindling figure of half formed partialities. He has had an extraordinary life and career and the end had come, as it comes to us one and all. He is not dead yet but he may as well be sitting out his remaining time in a specialised care facility as he is. An ignominious end in some regards, but I choose not to see it that way. I choose to remember the man as he was. That man was brilliant, extraordinary and brim full of life.

 

 

 

Film Review: A Month of Sundays (Australian: Comedy/Drama).

September 12, 2016

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John Clarke and  Anthony LaPaglia.

A freshly divorced Real Estate agent struggling with the loss of his mother is limping along until a mistaken phone call inadvertently offers him a way out of the blind alley he has parked himself. As with all stories it’s just a beginning and ‘A Month of Sundays’ ends up being a heartfelt (though never sentimental) tale about what it means to be a man in particular what it means to be an Australian man. It’s about male relationships: with mothers, colleagues and friends but mostly it’s about fathers and sons and no, it ain’t heavy; it’s more like a gentle glide down a softly flowing river on a boat sheltered from the heat of the day by the bittersweet tones of passing time.

Otherwise there is John Clarke and for the uninitiated Mr Clarke is something of an icon back in his home country of New Zealand, especially for those of us who were kids in the 1970s and who grew up listening to his L.Ps and watching him on television. A satirist specializing in what Americans describe as ‘droll’ humour and what Aussies and Kiwis call ‘the piss-take’, Clarke pops up here as Phillip Lang owner of Phillip Lang Real Estate and does his usual pithy turn adding a little dancing light to the overall texture of the production.

Yes, I am an unbridled and ever admiring fan but I must not let this get in the way of acknowledging Anthony LaPaglia’s deft turn in the lead role. Frank Mollard turns out to be a beautiful man, in a very understated Aussie bloke kind of way, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he created Mollard over a few or six beers with Clarke. Yep, Mollard is that kind of character.

A wise and warm little film that reminded me of the importance of kindness and decency and left me feeling a little bit better about everything and isn’t this what movies are supposed to do, affect us? Among many delightful scenes my favourite was watching Clarke and LaPaglia negotiate a water sprinkler. That’s worth the price of admission alone.