A roundup/recap of the current best and rest in film and DVD. In this installment: Rang de Basanti, Volver, Black Sheep, Black Book, Half Nelson, Suburban Mayhem.

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Rang de Basanti (Madman, $29.95)
Loosely translated, ‘rang de basanti’ means ‘colour me saffron.’ It is fitting that this story gives the audience an appreciation of Indian culture and history as much as it does its characters. It’s an ambitious film (though perhaps not so much by Bollywood standards) that mostly achieves what it sets out to – that is, tell the story of a group of spirited Indian youths whose lives are irrevocably changed when they befriend an English documentary maker. Sue travels to India in the hope of making a film from her grandfather’s memoirs, written during his tenure serving Britain during India’s struggle for independence. Her task is not exactly an easy undertaking when all her new friends seem to care about is having a good time. But it soon becomes apparent that the film is about more than just subverting authority for the sake of it – it is about questioning and challenging it. Many of the favoured Bollywood tensions feature, including political corruption and religious conflict. However, the film has a realism that makes it seem less like just another stock-standard story and more like a comment on the issues facing contemporary Indian society. The narrative structure is effective; using cutaway scenes of footage from Sue’s film that become more and more intertwined with reality the deeper the group of friends becomes involved in the project. They are cast as Indian revolutionaries in Sue’s project, and in a classic case of life imitating art, find themselves in an uprising of their own after a tragedy close to home. Although it suffers from overzealous English dialogue and what seems to be some clunky subtitling of the Hindi portions of the script, this does not stop the characters from maturing and becoming more endearing over the course of the film. They pull and push at the audience’s sympathies for the full 2.5 hours, so that the final explosive conflict between justice and injustice, traditionalist and modernist, had me grasping at any hope I could that perhaps the ending would allow them some reprieve. Rang de Basanti proves true to its Bollywood roots with the inclusion of several elaborate music and dance numbers, which are exquisitely shot to capture the happier side of life in India. A small but significant appearance by Om Puri also lends gravitas to what is already a challenging and satisfying viewing. New to DVD. (optional English subtitles; deleted scenes; theatrical trailer).—Kim Choe

Volver (Magna Pacific, $29.95)
Set in a Spanish village outside of Madrid, Volver (To Return) is the poignant yet comedic story of Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) and her family, who struggle for unification in the face of shocking family revelations. In his latest offering, Pedro Almodóvar touches on the familiar themes of the strength of women and the village vs. city dichotomy of Spain. The women in Almodóvar’s films are survivors and those in Volver are no exception; they will go to great lengths to support each other despite seemingly insurmountable odds. Men are largely absent; seen only by the effects of their destructive behaviour. This seems to be a reference to the Franco era, when the many men killed during the civil war resulted in a shortage. Almodóvar gives a caricature of the Spanish village, which despite all its gossip, superstition and insularity, provides the support Raimunda and her family need in their time of crisis. As always Almodóvar places pathos and the absurd side by side; meanwhile, vivid, larger than life cinematography animates the screen with a rich tapestry of colour, most notably the highly symbolic red. Penelope Cruz is always much more believable performing in her native tongue and her interpretation of Raimunda has the right combination of deadpan and melodrama. Supporting actors also all give very strong performances – a genius script certainly helps. Volver has none of the shock-factor of Almodóvar’s previous films, which are largely centered around those marginalised from society. While not as gritty, it is subtler in its characterization and symbolism, and is balanced with funny and thought-provoking moments in equal parts. New to DVD. (optional English subtitles; interviews; theatrical trailer).—Natasha Burling

Black Sheep (Warner Bros, $24.95)
In the year New Zealand comedy finally came of age, Black Sheep will be remembered as the odd one out: an unendearing throwback to the splatter humour of Bad Taste and Braindead, it is a reanimation experiment gone horribly wrong. Offering neither homage or revival of the Peter Jackson legacy, Jonathan King (son of late historian Michael King) posits the consequences of genetic engineering within a comic-strip of shameless caricatures and second-hand Kiwiana schtick; in the pursuit of higher quality wool, a back country farm harbours illicit experimentation on sheep, soon to be hijacked by an environmental activist named ‘Experience’, and two blokes, one a timid white boy, the other a Maori straight out of Footrot Flats. Sure enough, it’s a well-tooled, marketable export in self-deprecation, but also inconsequential and bereft of imagination; rolling hills, Fred Dagg clichés, and bestiality jibes the extent of its cartoon ruralism. The overearnest commentary by King is equally humourless. New to DVD. (audio commentary; making of featurette; deleted scenes; bloopers).—Tim Wong

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Black Book (Paul Verhoeven/2006)
An outlandish retrospective of Nazism, Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book is a bold, brawny feminist war epic starring the drop-dead gorgeous Carice van Houten in an unapologetic performance of sexual gambit and brute emotional force. Nobody objectifies the female form quite like Verhoeven, and for a time, his heroine finds herself sucked into the vacuum left by Elizabeth Berkley and Sharon Stone. Ogle her private parts we might, but it’s those eyes that hit all the right spots, and van Houten transcends any lurid necessity with chutzpah and a degree of self-ownership; indeed, hers is the rarest of roles, a constructive, non-submissive Jew who isn’t going to take this shit lying down (except when seducing the Gestapo’s top brass). Basically Army of Shadows with tits and ass, Verhoeven’s film trades regularly in nudity and sex. For the Dutchman, neither is complete without the titillation of violence, and there’s something reckless, if not dangerously arousing about his penchant for flesh and blood while dealing in the historical gravity of WWII. But it’s through such a treacherous minefield of moral ambiguities and the blurring of friend and foe – where fiction and reality are smudged in lieu of Werner Herzog’s no-show in the straight-faced Rescue Dawn – that Verhoeven manages to deliver more truths about the war than the self-righteousness of Schindler’s List, or the numbing combat realism of Saving Private Ryan. More than a Darryl F. Zanuck throwback, Black Book is in fact the kind of movie Steven Spielberg used to make: loud, pulpy, wildly inflated, and utterly gripping. It also understands the decadence of war by simply allowing itself to entertain. Guilt is part of its pleasure, and Verhoeven wrote the book on spectacular bad movies. I wouldn’t write off Black Book though; so ballsy and unadulterated in execution, you’ll struggle to put it down. In Theatres Now. —Tim Wong [Read More]

Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck/2006)
Though focusing on the inspirational teacher motivates dispossessed student relationship, this is no Dead Poet’s Society or Dangerous Minds – the characters are believable, the acting decent, and the moral muted. Daniel Dunne (Ryan Gosling) teaches basketball and history in a Brooklyn school. He tells his students about turning points and they recite their narration over old footage of dramatic historical events. The film hinges on such turning points; whether growing up; making decisions or telling jokes. Mr Dunne may be off-side with the faculty for not sticking to the curriculum, but the students like him as he chews gum and drinks coffee in class; he is scruffily dressed and wears rubber bands on his wrists in a childish parody of someone disorganised enough not to have anywhere else to put them. He desperately needs looking after, as he isn’t able to do it himself. At home he chain smokes, draws cartoons and jogs. Oh yeah, and he does drugs. A lot of drugs. When his student, 13-year-old Drey (Shareeka Epps), finds him tripping in the toilets, she becomes his new best friend. And she could use a friend. The question is, and it is one that Dunne asks himself, should it really be him? He tries to tell her, “Just because you know that one thing about me. One thing doesn’t make a man.” It does seem an insubstantial basis for a friendship, but the acting is so good that it works; Gosling is perfectly understated and Epps is the best child actor I’ve seen in a long time without a hint of cutesy precociousness. The film is devoid of big bang moments but extremely well-crafted. It narrows its focus to this intense friendship, in the way that drug use induces monomania. Most of the soundtrack is supplied by the excellent Canadian indie band, Broken Social Scene, but the inclusion of a Billy Bragg track, “New England”, with its lyric, “I don’t want to change the world” is entirely deliberate. Nothing is accidental in director Ryan Fleck’s thought provoking film, the memory of which remained long after. In Theatres Now.—Kate Blackhurst [Full Review]

Suburban Mayhem (Paul Goldman/2006)
Wanna Fuck? This question, which opens Paul Goldman’s Suburban Mayhem, appears as a text message on the phone of its youthful protagonist, whilst seated on a pew at a church where her father’s funeral is taking place. Emily Barclay is convincing in the lead role of (late) teenage malcontent Katrina Skinner. Disturbingly enamoured of an only brother, imprisoned for perpetrating a violent murder, Katrina is a seething cocktail of all-too-self-aware sexuality, bitterness, petulant cruelty and self-obsession in equal measures. Accompanying her crazed ride through life and death in the suburbs are her unfortunate father John, her unfortunate toddler daughter Bailee, her unfortunate boyfriend Rusty, her brother’s unfortunate and mentally unstable friend Kenny, and whole streets full of unfortunate neighbours. Reading like a black comedy-cum-teen angst mockumentary, the narrative is interspersed with media “interview” segments and flashbacks from friends and observers of the titular “mayhem” to which Katrina is (un)deniably connected. Each, though mostly appearing a little camera-shocked, basks in the reflected glow of her dubious celebrity whilst waxing somewhat less than lyrical about their friend/girlfriend/neighbour/beauty clinic client (etc.) in the wake of a recent murder. Suburban Mayhem maintains a high level of energy that evenly matches the blistering pace set by its cranked up soundtrack. It has almost as many entertaining qualities as it has distasteful ones, with generally sound performances and worthy production values. There is a sort of gritty, cartoonish polish to the way the film’s overriding aesthetic quality is a stylised version of middle class white trashdom. Katrina – all bad girl, disproportionately endowed with sexual power, literally leading the local male populace around by their collective suburban phallus – possesses a kind of mythic quality you’d usually equate with a (sub)urban legend. But I don’t pretend for a minute that director (Paul Goldman), writer (Alice Bell) and co. are taking themselves too seriously in this picture. Suburban Mayhem provides a fast, ‘boganly’ slick ride through a shocking suburban murder mystery based on a true life occurrence. The film seems more focused on the style and feel, than on the actual events or on stimulating thought. I like clever and fresh genre reworking – Rian Johnson’s recent teen noir masterpiece Brick is a case in point – but Suburban Mayhem, for all its ballsy ‘fuck you’ attitude and pub punk vigour, never quite transcends its sub-iconic exterior. In Theatres Now.—Jacob Powell [Full Review]