Wednesday, December 31, 2008


1997, New Zealand, directed by Brad McGann

Like many short films, Brad McGann's Possum bears little resemblance to his subsequent feature work, at least in terms of tone; there's almost no narrative, with instead a focus on intense atmospherics. Set in the New Zealand bush, at some indeterminate time in the past, McGann experiments with sepia-toned imagery and, especially, an intense and occasionally disturbing palette of sounds to evoke a backwoods nightmare, in which a disciplinarian father attempts to rule over his meagre kingdom, including a daughter who is closer to the animals that surround the hut than to her relatives. Although it's hard to grasp what McGann's ultimate purpose is - the narrative doesn't help much - the film insinuates itself into the mind, and the overall atmosphere of dread plays cleverly with audience expectations.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

In My Father's Den

2004, New Zealand/UK, directed by Brad McGann

Brad McGann's only feature film - he died in 2007 - is a compelling exploration of the consequences that follow from the return of a prodigal son, Paul Prior (Matthew Macfadyen), to his small hometown in New Zealand. The film is an adaptation of Maurice Gee's 1972 novel, though McGann, who also wrote the screenplay, changes Gee's template considerably, moving the action from Auckland to a lightly-populated area of the South Island, bringing things up to the present day, and constructing something of a mystery/thriller by holding back key information that Gee reveals as early as his first page.

McGann releases details sparingly, constructing his film as a kind of puzzle assembled from pieces of the past and present, with Prior's attempts to forget his youth - by running away to London - undone by his decision to return home. The film is extremely successful in evoking both the contemporary period and Paul's younger days; McGann has an acute sense of the differing emotions of youth, and captures the mixture of regretful nostalgia and frustrated ambition at the heart of small-town entrapment. He also makes good use - without slipping into excessive prettiness - of the often desolate landscapes of Otago farm country (Stuart Dryburgh, who shot several key Kiwi films of the early 1990s, makes a nice return home himself as cinematographer).

It's hard to write about the film without an awareness of McGann's very early death, and a sense that he was already a director of considerable skill: there's a unobtrusive intelligence at work, for example, in the way he moves his camera to add new information - a concealed boy, a piece of jewelry - rather than adding in an additional cut that might seem a distraction. He also has a great deal of confidence in his ability to stitch his material together: he doesn't signal the shift between time periods heavy-handedly, and yet it's always clear what is happening and how each new snippet of information contributes to the complex, richly detailed portrait of small-town and family life (the only exception is, perhaps, the role played by Miranda Otto; she's a fine actress, but she can't do much with a character never intended to be more than a cipher).

Monday, December 22, 2008

In Bruges

2008, UK/Ireland, directed by Martin McDonagh

Given his background as a playwright, it's no surprise to encounter Martin McDonagh's finely-honed banter and careful plotting, but his first feature also confirms the visual promise of his short Six Shooter, displaying considerable confidence with the camera (making liberal use of the architectural and artistic resources provided by the eponymous Belgian city). Despite the shift of medium, there's a considerable degree of continuity with McDonagh's stage work, particularly the fascination with violence - indeed, several of the film's most striking shots, such as an overhead view of the aftermath of a pair of killings, are of acts of violence or their consequences.

McDonagh's protagonists are a pair of London-based Irish hitmen - a strong double act from Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell - and he walks a fine line with his leads: they are, after all, gangland killers, and while, as Gleeson says, they generally kill pretty nasty people, they're still in the killing game, and hardly model citizens. McDonagh teases out some of their self-justifications with considerable black humour but also allows them surprising insights into their own morality (and mortality); less comfortable, perhaps, is the way in which the introduction of their more obviously psychotic boss (played by Ralph Fiennes, channelling Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast) allows them to seem relatively cuddly.

There's an ever-so-slightly mechanistic quality to the script, which seems to preordain some of its own action, and yet there's great pleasure to be had in seeing the pieces click perfectly together, like a well-engineered heist flick (Spike Lee's Inside Man springs to mind). The film's most enjoyable elements, though, are the smaller details of McDonagh's dialogue: the occasionally absurd tangents that the characters depart on, their pitch-black asides even at the most serious moments, even the way in which he captures the differences in British and Irish swearing (and, equally important, the different attitudes to that swearing). Gleeson and Farrell are excellent foils for each other, the bearish older man and the bundle-of-nerves youngster - with their diametrically opposed views of what might constitute fun - and Farrell's performance has considerable nuance; he hasn't been this good since 2003's Intermission, where he stole the ensemble show with some choice line deliveries.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Jinx Sister

2008, New Zealand, directed by Athina Tsoulis

Shot on HD video, Athina Tsoulis's second feature is a domestic drama about a woman returning to her family after ten years in Los Angeles, years in which she has done everything possible to forget her past, discarding her accent, personal history and, at times, her dignity as she seeks to erase unpleasant memories (the film opens with a startling scene as the protagonist, Laura, played by Sara Wiseman, picks herself up after an unwise night on the town).

The film is primarily concerned with the idea of reconnecting - with family and with country, and the scene where Laura drives from the airport to her hotel cleverly captures the way in which she tries to come to terms with the accumulation of little details that has transformed the streetscape since she last visited Auckland. The film is set in a low-key, predominantly Maori southern suburb, away from the bright lights and with its own distinct community ethos, which Tsoulis transfers nicely to the screen.

At times, the domestic dramas, as Laura attempts to renew contact with her sister, shade into melodrama, though one such twist is followed by a scene of such honest insight into the characters' lives that ultimately it's a powerful addition to the film. For the most part, the performances are nicely judged, too; veteran William Wallace is especially good, and has a moving scene with relative newcomer Jarod Rawiri, while Sara Wiseman makes the most of her starring role, revealing a few rough edges but rising to the challenge of drawing us in to the story of often unsympathetic character.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Rain of the Children

2008, New Zealand, directed by Vincent Ward

An unusual film in which director Vincent Ward returns to the territory of his first feature, In Spring One Plants Alone, a documentary which he began filming when he was just 21, about an elderly Maori woman, Puhi, and her adult son. At the time of the original film, Ward was primarily interested in Puhi for the ways in which she represented a continuation of traditional Maori life. Raised in a very rural area himself, Ward spent almost two years in Puhi's community as a young man, and he re-uses much of his older footage here, as he links Puhi’s hardscrabble later years to the extraordinary story of her youth, a story which he says he sensed but did not understand as a younger man.

Puhi was linked to a charismatic Maori leader, Rua Kenana, who led a group of Tuhoe Maori as “chosen people,” one of many such groups which developed in the wake of nineteenth-century missionary activity; Rua‘s group considered themselves to be lost children of Israel. Puhi, who was born around 1900, married one of Rua’s sons, who was killed when their community was raided by colonial police. Puhi was also believed to carry a curse, one which trailed her and her descendants, and Ward’s film is ultimately an attempt to understand the nature of these powerful beliefs. Many of the contemporary Tuhoe interviewed by Ward struggle for words when trying to convey the nature of their beliefs about the curse, though none deny that there is a form of curse, and Ward probes repeatedly as he tries to deal with forms of belief outside his own experience, while also relating some of Puhi’s struggles to more Western views of mental health.

The film is a blend of footage from the late 1970s, modern interviews, and re-creations of events from the early twentieth century, and at times it is very successful in conveying the realities of Rua’s self-appointed mission, while also serving as an extraordinary window into the Puhi’s modern life, a life which involves phones and cars and yet which seems, in other ways, barely touched by modernity (it would be interesting to see the full original film to get a better sense of Ward's original preoccupations). As a search for explanations, however, it's not always completely successful - at times, you feel as though Ward is repeating the same questions both to his interviewees and to himself without ever making much progress in his own thinking - but it is a heartfelt attempt by a Pakeha New Zealander to grapple with the complex belief systems of some of his Maori compatriots, and a compelling meditation on the nature of history itself.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Baby Mama

2008, US, directed by Michael McCullers

Yet another movie-on-a-plane, though I must confess quite a pleasurable one: it's silly, unrealistic, and often very amusing, and it boasts a fine set of performers. Tina Fey plays a successful executive who hasn't met the right guy with whom to have children, and embarks instead on a surrogate pregnancy, throwing her together with Saturday Night Live colleague Amy Poehler, one of that show's brightest contemporary lights, as the aforementioned birthing assistant. The film's essentially yet another variation on the old mismatched buddy theme: in this case the slovenly Angie (Poehler) and the micromanaging Kate (Fey), who come to know one another better, etc. What makes the film palatable is the cast: Fey and Poehler are both excellent, but they get strong support from actors as diverse as Sigourney Weaver, Steve Martin, Greg Kinnear, and Romany Malco; Weaver and Martin both nail particular kinds of self-absorbed professional success in very amusing fashion.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


1988, US, directed by Roger Donaldson

Not a film that I expected to see again in this lifetime, but it was hard to resist the lure of an outdoor screen in Fiji, whatever the film on offer; it was somehow appropriate that the screen was behind a bar. It's hard to assess what went so wrong with this film: Tom Cruise was at the top of the film world after Top Gun, while Roger Donaldson had just made the fine Washington thriller No Way Out - and a number of strong New Zealand films before that, including Sleeping Dogs, the country's first modern feature film - but their collaboration is an absolute mess.

Cruise is an actor who needs a strong director - Oliver Stone showed what the actor was capable of delivering the following year in Born on the Fourth of July - and while Donaldson had done good work with Kevin Costner and several Kiwi actors, you wonder if Cruise's box office success and the meddling of studio executives made it hard for the director to rule the roost; there are moments of truly sublime silliness, with Cruise pouting his way through key scenes. Perhaps, though, it was all about the paycheck: the script, after all, is dreadfully trite, and it's hard to imagine it was ever any great shakes. The various relationships never ring true - Cruise and his mentor Bryan Brown profess their undying friendship, and yet never seem to actually like each other all that much - while the resolution is so rushed you wonder if a chunk of the movie ended up on the cutting room floor. It's mostly interesting, at this remove, for the glimpse of late 1980s New York; the film breathes something of the striving air of Wall Street, particularly that movie's sense of compromised morality amid attempts to cash in.

Monday, December 08, 2008


2008, US, directed by Andrew Stanton

Another movie seen on a plane, I'll have to return to this film at a later date. I found it captivating, with an intriguing storyline that included some pointed commentary on the future of (American) society, while the long wordless sequences were especially, compelling, but the visual qualities of the film, a critical component of all Pixar movies, were so compromised by the screen on the plane that it would do the film an injustice to see it only in that format.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Get Smart

2008, US, directed by Peter Segal

I loved the Get Smart TV show when growing up: it played on Saturday mornings in Ireland, and we'd be up early to follow Maxwell Smart's antics, miming the pratfalls afterwards. The biggest problem with this remake - apart from the usual redundancy of such ventures - is that it feels nothing like the TV show: the original was anchored in the Cold War-James Bond heyday, whereas this Agent 86 has to deal with an entirely different world, a contemporary reality close enough that the film seems shy about making Smart truly incompetent (something the old show was much less wary of). Indeed, the character, played here by Steve Carell, is more like Bond with slapstick - accident prone but still capable of saving the world, whereas the original Smart was a danger to all around him.

Like other action comedies, the film is also all at sea when it comes to establishing a consistent tone: the genuine violence of some scenes sits very uneasily with the comedy (Bad Company has similar problems), another issue more or less absent from the more cartoonish original. While Carell is an appealing performer, he can do this kind of deadpan silliness in his sleep; his role feels very underwritten, or perhaps overwritten into oblivion, whereas other cast members, notably Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and a pair of geeky sidekicks, get more consistent material, which they milk to good effect.

Fred Claus

2007, US, directed by David Dobkin

Every American holiday season brings at least one new heartwarming Christmas tale, and Fred Claus was 2007's entry, offered a year later on a December plane ride from Boston to Los Angeles. Perhaps under the influence of Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa, the film attempts to recast the Christmas mythology somewhat, with Vince Vaughn playing Santa's ne'er-do-well older brother, a Chicago resident with a succession of outlandish get-rich-quick schemes. Vaughn is good at this kind of part, delivering his trademark page-at-a-time monologues - though Wedding Crashers director Dobkin relies much too heavily on Vaughn's ranting ability - and looking suitably disheveled.

When push comes to shove, though, the sweetness quotient is turned to high, with life lessons learnt on predictable cue, and any grit and bite excised (before that, there is a very amusing sequence, featuring Frank Stallone, Roger Clinton, and Stephen Baldwin, when Fred attends a meetng of "Siblings Anonymous"). Dobkin has assembled a very solid supporting cast, including Paul Giamatti and Kevin Spacey, but their roles are almost all very limited; you wonder what, apart from the paycheck, attracted an actor like Paul Giamatti, normally more judicious in his choice of parts.

Monday, December 01, 2008


2007, UK, directed by Danny Boyle

While it's made with great skill, and with careful attention to the realities of life on a spaceship, I spent most of the running time of Sunshine thinking of the other films it reminded me of - surely not the makers' primary intention. While it's hard for any film of this nature to escape comparison with 2001: A Space Odyssey, the parallels occasionally seem distractingly obvious, while other scenes are reminiscent of Alien or Solaris (particularly the visual tones of Steven Soderbergh's remake). At times, the film cries out for the occasional touch of humour: it examines human beings on the literal fringes, and there's something elemental in many of the character outcomes, but along the way they come to seem lacking in certain of the qualities we take for granted back on earth (as in his earlier film with Danny Boyle, 28 Days Later, Cillian Murphy gives an deeply committed, physical performance, but his character here responds to extraordinary circumstances in a much more self-consciously serious manner).


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Most of the images here are either studio publicity stills or screen captures I've made myself; if I've taken your image without giving you credit, please let me know.

About Me

Boston, Massachusetts, United States