A roundup/recap of the current best and rest in film and DVD. In this installment: Street Kings, I’m Not There (Film); Mandela: The Living Legend, We’re Here to Help, Death at a Funeral, Barking Dogs Never Bite (DVD).

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Street Kings (David Ayer/2007)
Hot-potatoed between names as big as Spike Lee and David Fincher over the years, Street Kings finally arrives as the sophomore slump of Training Day-writer David Ayer. Not surpisingly, taking stock of the talent once involved (including a surviving screenplay by crime-fiction laureate, James Ellroy) only maximizes the bizarreness of the final product: a cheaply grim policier, sold as an exposé on LA cop brutality and beamed directly from straight-to-video hell. Setting a tone of lurid bombast, Ayear opens in the apartment of Detective Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves): Awakening to the spasms of an alarm clock, he vomits, cleans his gun, and proceeds to mow down four Korean sex-traffickers. Meanwhile, taking offence to Ludlow’s casual disposal of minorities, ex-partner Terrence Washington (Terry Crews) is suspected of blowing the whistle to head office. But when Ludlow follows him to a convenience store one afternoon, Terrence is violently (and opportunely) murdered by two masked shooters. Finding himself potentially implicated – having been caught on tape, firing a stray round into Terrence’s back – Ludlow is awakened to the cold reality of police corruption when Captain Wander (Forest Whitaker) disposes of the evidence, in a bid to protect his stable. Whether then Ludlow’s resolve to find the killers is born of self-servitude, or a nagging sense of duty to Terence is unclear; either way, under the crushing serenity of Reeves’ performance, the question is moot. All that remains is a grimy-eyed tour of LA, wherein, left to his own blank devices, Ludlow’s quest takes him from the halls of the LAPD – where every encounter is pitched like a locker-room brawl – to the gangbangin’ ‘burbs – so vigilantly 90’s you coulda sworn this thing was about ten years overdue (oh wait ...). In Theatres Now.—David Levinson

I’m Not There (Todd Haynes/2007)
There are occasions when the weight of critical opinion compels me to reassess my judgment of a film. In this instance the Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There, which has been endowed with praise from leading international and local media – including a five-star review here on Lumičre. After a period of reflection, I’m still not there. The problem with I’m Not There – as I see it – is its achievements are equally its failures. The film seeks to reveal Bob Dylan as an enigmatic and constructed persona – so by its conclusion we know him no better and care less. This is a film which is easy to like on an intellectual level, but which forgets to inform or more importantly entertain its audience. The use of several actors to portray various aspects of Bob Dylan is certainly inspired (if not entirely original) and the performances are compelling. However, with no clear narrative or characters with whom to empathize or hate, a clever cinematic device quickly becomes tiresome. At over two hours running-time this film long outstays its welcome. Cate Blanchett as ‘Judas Dylan’ is undeniably brilliant. Heather Ledger as ‘Cinema-Star Dylan’ and Christian Bale as ‘Jesus Dylan’ are also convincing. However, as Todd Haynes leaps back and forward between narratives (there are six in all) he loses any semblance of momentum. The film’s closing stanza, involving Richard Gere’s Billy the Kid character is particularly meandering. As has been noted I’m Not There’s soundtrack – eclectic renditions of Dylan songs – is significant and ultimately serves as a welcome distraction. One can occasionally pole an audience’s reaction to a film – for audiences and critics can be diametrically opposed – by the speed at which they filter out of a theatre (an admittedly base and grossly unscientific survey). As the credits rolled at my particular screening a packed house of Bob Dylan fans and curious walk-ins clambered over each other to flee. I was one of them. I’m Not There may be artistically brave, but it’s just not much fun to watch. In Theatres Now.—Caleb Starrenburg

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Mandela: The Living Legend (BBC/RS, $29.95)
Here’s an insightful, understated documentary on the man they call Madiba, Nelson Mandela, a rightful “living legend”. All the crucial bits are here – the trial, the 27 years of prison, the famous images of the end of the “long walk to freedom” in 1990. Together with landmark dates outside the prison walls (1948, Sharpeville, Soweto), the still scarcely believable South African apartheid story is told vividly again. Better yet, that story is woven through with six months’ footage of modern-day Mandela, buzzing around the world, pressing leaders to support his causes and everywhere smiling and waving.
At once messianic and down-to-earth, available to all and still seemingly distant from the daughter he missed growing up, generous but no fan of “time-wasters” as Thabo Mbeki discovers when he shows up late to a dinner, the first democratically-elected South African president comes out all the more inspirational for this encounter. “I despise them”, he says of the creators of apartheid, but later, as moving footage of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee runs, “If we don’t forgive them, then that feeling of bitterness and revenge will always be there.” To questions about his advocacy of violence as a political tool, he’s upfront, but insists there were limits. “Terrorism means any person, organization or state that targets innocent individuals. We never did.” He’s now a well-practised schmoozer, a pro at getting something in return for the terrific publicity he gives international leaders. It’s he who upstages Bill Clinton whenever the two appear together here in the AIDS fight. Similarly, it’s Mandela who pulls off a frank acknowledgement of his successes (and failures) with the “ladies”, while Big Bill just looks sleazy in a scene where he introduces some “pretty girls”.
There are limits. Mandela’s failure to talk AIDS while president is slammed and his response unconvincing. Just what sort of violence he thinks struggle groups can justify is not well articulated. It’s clear too there is some significant sadness in him – variously described by friends and observers as a kind of hardness, a lack of emotion, a distance from most of the adoring world. But Wallace Stevens says the imperfect is our paradise, and it all finally seems to make Mandela shine the more. He’s the pre-eminent political figure of the last 50 years and the thing he wants most, in his 85th year, is “to be satisfied with my life as it is”. His joy at watching a couple of his great brood of grandchildren bouncing on a trampoline is palpable. Any regrets? No. Leonard Cohen says similar in a recent documentary, and they say it like they don’t even think about it: no to regrets, no to self-congratulation. Maybe the old buggers – wanderers, guides both – are onto something. New to DVD. (no special features).—Tom Fitzsimons

We’re Here to Help (South Pacific/Sony, $29.95)
A dry, remarkably unflattering movie of bureaucratic hell, We’re Here to Help plays it straight in relaying the four-year ordeal of Dave Henderson, portrayed here by the spotless Erik Thomson. When his girlfriend (Miriama Smith) visits the Inland Revenue to submit a GST refund, an IRD officer and sexual aggressor (Jason Hoyte, suitably repugnant) addresses her with some untoward remarks. Henderson, chivalrous, returns to deliver a piece of his mind, only to have his property development company audited out of spite. Accusations of fraud and income tax evasion follow, painfully drawn out by a calamity of paper trails, boardroom meetings, and labyrinthine phone calls – perilously dull material for anyone who loathes the tedium of business administration. Based on Henderson’s tell-all book, Be Very Afraid, the film’s factual, cautionary tale – a swell advertisement for New Zealand public services – reminds us that sometimes, the little guy does win, if not to ignore those green and orange forms at our own peril. Shot with provincial drabness, the departmental milieu is at once unsentimentally austere and depressingly low-budget. Kafkaesque, yes, but hardly a comedy as its logline purports it to be. New to DVD. (audio commentary w/ writer/dir. Jonothan Culinane and Dave Henderson; behind the scenes documentary; bloopers; trailer).—Tim Wong

Death at a Funeral (Icon/Warner Bros, $39.95)
This degenerate, unsophisticated funeral farce – directed with unsubtlety by American Frank Oz – supposes a gay affair took place between the now-deceased father of brothers Daniel and Robert (Matthew Macfadyen and Rupert Graves respectively), and an opportunistic dwarf (Peter Dinklage) determined to blackmail his way into the departed’s will. The service itself is a procession of bad eulogies, acid-trips, and insufferable British twats, culminating with an act of manslaughter, a bowel movement, and two homosexuals inside a coffin. Questionably Ealing-inspired, Oz’s unceremonious comedy more closely fits the mould of a Farrelly Brothers movie, only appearing in the deceptively upper-middlebrow clothing of an ‘arthouse’ feature – reason, perhaps, that the film was so mistakingly programmed into the New Zealand International Film Festivals last year. New to DVD. (optional English subtitles; audio commentaries w/ Frank Oz, writer and cast; blooper reel).—Tim Wong

Barking Dogs Never Bite (Madman, $29.95)
Proponents of Memories of Murder and The Host will find the makings of Bong Joon-ho’s eccentric cinema in his feature debut, an unclassifiable slacker comedy about desperate human beings who, throughout the course of the film, either kill or eat dogs. Set in a rancid apartment block – itself, a kennel for social depression – a feeble university lecturer thwarted by academic corruption takes his frustrations out on a series of neighbourhood pups. The resident janitor, meanwhile, sequesters the corpses for his lunchtime stew. The noblest character, a yellow-hooded mooch who channels her inner-superhero to perform daring feats of canine rescue, is played by none other than Bae Doona, Korea’s best and most willing actress. Sullen and makeup-less, Bae’s readiness to dispense with the cosmetic trappings of the profession has become a hallmark of her career, as has her dopey physicality, which varies from beanstalk lankiness to Chaplinesque disorientation. Bae’s comic levity, so memorable in Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Linda Linda Linda, is among the film’s other great discoveries, with Bong’s knack for tonal shifts established too: through nonchalant pacing, free-jazz bursts, and a delightful genre ambiguity, he shares in his characters’ perpetual funk, all the while maintaining a cruel state of flux between heartlessness and humanism. If ironic as a statement on economic malaise – it was released the same year as Joint Security Area, a blockbuster which propelled Korean Cinema into the black – Barking Dogs Never Bite remains dark and downbeat as a leveller, reducing people to the stature of animals (and pets to a basic food group). It’s also a film that has no right to be funny, but is. New to DVD. (Korean language w/ optional English subtitles; trailers).—Tim Wong [Read More]