Archive for Sam Neill

Lost Boys’ Club

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2016 by dcairns


Finally caught up with WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, which Fiona loved and I liked. The above arresting image — “He can never get the faces right” — was my favourite bit.

It’s a house-share comedy in which the main characters are all vampires. It’s also a mockumentary. Neither concept sounds that fresh or amazing, but what puts it over is the care lavished on world-building — drawings ideas from every major vampire film of the past few decades, especially the po-faced but silly ones like INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE, the movie sets up the principles by which its Kiwi bloodsuckers operate, and manages to make them all pretty funny.


I did feel that the mockumentary angle, though essential for the film’s storytelling (the various vamp’s interviews are all very amusing, and supply the backstory cheaply, while the handheld camera style allows for lively visuals at low cost), was underexplored. We never meet the documentarists, and we don’t fully understand why the vampires would cooperate in a venture which must eventually blow their serial murder lifestyle sky-high (though people do cooperate in docs when they really shouldn’t — but I think that’s a feature of modern society and our crazy urge for fame, which these characters, all survivors from previous centuries, shouldn’t be aware of let alone prone to). A title at the beginning tells us that the camera crew all wore crucifixes, but later on their lives are endangered… but we still don’t get to meet them. Also, they’re passively cooperating in a bunch of murders, and unlike in MAN BITES DOG the film doesn’t deal with their culpability (how can it? — they’re literally not in the frame).

But ignoring all that, as the film wants us to, it’s amusing and very nicely acted. The only other issue is what a boys’ club it is, with the only major female character being Jackie Van Beek as the Renfield type “servant” of one of the undead (co-director Taika Waititi). Only one female vampire plays a limited role, and the rest of the women are all victims. Given that there are recognized archetypes for female vampires, it seems a shame the filmmakers didn’t provide a role for one. Though there is a strong history of pathetic male characters stuck together in sitcom (and this is very much a sitcom, with just the minimal amount of forward momentum to contrive a movie plot), there seems to reason in this story world for women to be so absent.


At Edinburgh this year I saw Waititi’s latest, HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE, which artfully reconfigures the dynamic of BAD SANTA into a New Zealand wilderness bonding dramedy (new sub-sub genre) — it has excellent perfs, led by Sam Neill, and proves that Waititi is gifted with more visual style than WWDITS’ deliberately limited palette could display. But again, the women are a bit lacking — one very nice character has to exit early for plot reasons, while the chief villainess, a child welfare worker (and yes, I’m suspicious of movies which cast child welfare workers as villains, too) could really have done with a character arc.

But he’s someone to watch. But, on the other hand, he’s doing THOR, next. I hope he limits himself to one superhero movie.

Also watched: THE CONJURING II. James Wan is also a talent to watch. He’s doing AQUAMAN next. Sigh.

“There are a lot of inconveniences to yachting that ordinary people don’t know anything about.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on October 13, 2015 by dcairns


Rudy Vallee’s observation about a life on the ocean wave in THE PALM BEACH STORY might very well be echoed by Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman in DEAD CALM, which I finally caught up with. Director Phillip Noyce is someone I haven’t really bothered myself about — I found his lauded QUIET AMERICAN dull, more faithful than Mankiewicz’s re-Americanized version but simply tedious to watch, and I never persevered with SALT, despite its refreshingly coherent action scenes. And I promise to never watch SLIVER or PATRIOT GAMES.

But this one finally tempted me, viewed as a George Miller movie (he produced) rather than a Noyce one. It feels tightly storyboarded and has been pared down until the backstory squeaks, a mere vestige of some now-lost subplot. The really intense suspense is in the first half, I found, but like such films as Hawks’ THE BIG SLEEP, it builds up such goodwill that you don’t notice if the last half isn’t as strong. I enjoyed MAD MAX: FURY ROAD as much as the rest of you, and it’s prompted me to revisit the Miller back catalogue.


Never get on a boat with Billy Zane, by the way. Just some friendly advice. Think about it.

Nicole K, still sporting her original birth face at this point, is both photogenic and convincing, while staunch Sam Neill is dominant enough to suggest a deeply-buried thematic level the film never quite gets around to pinning down. His advice to his spouse that she must forget their dead child and move on to their new life is uncannily echoed by Zane later in the film as he urges her to stop thinking about her drowning husband and devote her attentions to him.


But it’s the nasty thrills and elbow-gnawing suspense that mark the film out as attention-worthy. Miller has always been not only unafraid to kill men, women, children and dogs, he has practically insisted upon it — you can see his entire career as a preparation for LORENZO’S OIL, just so we’ll take that movie’s fatal childhood disease seriously. Trust him, he’s a doctor.

Bad panty continuity. Nicole stips off to seduce Zane, then climbs straight on deck wearing only a jacket — and is suddenly sporting tighty-whities. Did Noyce seriously say, “No one will be looking at her ass, they won’t notice”? Fiona reckons Nicole just didn’t want to spend the rest of the movie bare-ass (Zane clearly DID). I guess her character just generated panties by sheer willpower. I can’t help feel the movie offered a few later opportunities for the character to don grundies. You can’t rush into these things.


Now all we need is the Orson Welles version. I don’t mind if it’s not finished, or not very good — TOO MUCH JOHNSON convinces me it’ll be interesting anyway, and the less work it undergoes at the hands of others, the better.

My Life as a Dog

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2010 by dcairns

I hadn’t heard of director Toa Fraser but I was drawn to DEAN SPANLEY, his film, for a variety of reasons.

1) The cast is excellent, with the underrated Jeremy Northam, the always excellent Sam Neill, and the indefatigable Peter O’Toole. Plus Bryan Brown (it’s been a while) and Judy Parfitt.

2) The screenplay is by Scottish writer Alan Sharp, who penned ROB ROY, whose resemblance to a classical western is easy to understand when you take into consideration his authorship of ULZANA’a RAID and BILLY TWO HATS. Cinephiles probably prize his screenplay of NIGHT MOVES most dearly of all.

3) The story is by Lord Dunsany, whose stuff I haven’t read but have been intrigued by on reputation alone. Pretty sure I’m going to read some now.

I noticed this film just before it came out, and then failed to see it on release. I’m now recommending EVERYBODY see it. To the above reasons, which I knew of before I watched it, I can add these —

1) It’s an intelligent weepy. It creeps up on you and then gently wrings your tear ducts till they squeak. In dealing with our relationships with our pets, and making a connection to our other, human, relationships, it’s skating on some thin ice, with a treacly Tokay of sentiment just below the surface, but I didn’t feel manipulated: instead I felt that the film illuminated something true about these strange “friendships” we form with animals.

2) Don McGlashan’s sumptuous score walks a similarly fine line, and with grace.

3) Leon Narbey’s cinematography is rich and pleasing, and somehow skirts the dangerous waters of “heritage cinema,” which the plush Edwardian decor brings us close to.

4) I confess to mixed feelings about Fraser’s direction: he presides over magnificent performances, and his filming of them is very solid and sometimes quite elegant, but he occasionally attempts a cutaway to a detail or a wide shot of an environment, and it doesn’t always add anything. The piece is so driven by performances that anything else gets in the way — with the exception of the slomo shots of bounding dogs, with which he is on safe ground. Perhaps a more vigorous and imaginative approach could have added layers of cinematic life to Sharp’s typically epigrammatic and thoughtful script, but what is there is more than enough to satisfy.

On reviewing, I found a lot of unobtrusive craft in the subtle way Fraser weaves the camera around and towards his characters, contributing greatly to the film’s unique, solemn-quirky atmosphere.

I imagine Lasse Hallstrom pitched his new movie, HACHIKO: A DOG’S STORY (Richard Gere + dog = dog) as “It’s MY LIFE AS A DOG, only with a dog.” The damn thing probably works, in terms of uplift and sentiment and a good work-out for the old weeping apparatus, but I suspect I would feel used by it. That’s where DEAD SPANLEY scores.

There’s an oddball plot here: Jeremy Northam is frustrated by his stiff-upper lip dad (O’Toole), who refuses to mourn the son he lost in the Boer War, or his wife, who died from grief. “When a thing goes to the trouble of happening, it is best regarded as inevitable,” is his bluff philosophy. Then Northam meets Spanley (Neill) at a talk on reincarnation, and discovers that the cleric is oddly affected by his favourite tipple, Tokay, which causes him to remember his past life as a Welsh spaniel. More remarkably still, it starts to seem that as a spaniel Neill may actually have belonged to O’Toole — his beloved dog, Wag. “One of the seven great dogs. At any one time, there are only seven.”

Where on earth is this going, you ask, and that indeed is one of the pleasures of the film: not knowing. The purpose of it all is carefully concealed until an hour in, but we were hypnotized by the expert playing and the charming insights into canine psychology afforded by the dean’s glimpses of his previous existence. And it’s all the more unpredictable because the film doesn’t appear to be for anyone, in a commercial sense. Which is refreshing. Most good books aren’t targeted in the rather deplorable way that films have to be, after all. I love genre films, but it’s frustrating to me that you can’t, for example, make a horror film with a child protagonist, despite childhood being a great source of fear, because the audience for horror films is perceived to be teenage, and what teenager wants to watch their kid brother or sister in a movie?

Every copy of DEAN SPANLEY comes with a complimentary Dudley Sutton.

So while DEAN SPANLEY may have suffered from being a hard project to situate in the marketplace, I’m hoping to do something to spread word of mouth that will help at least a few people discover it. The movie deserves it. It not only offers an emotional release, it reflects upon the value and nature of that release, which is one possible way to differentiate between what’s repulsively known as a “tear-jerker” (even porno movies don’t get called “sperm-jerkers”, do they?) and a movie which deals with emotion as subject.

Perhaps, I found myself thinking, we keep animals with shorter lives than themselves, in part to practice our mourning. That, after all, is such a big part of what we have to do in life.

Available from Amazon UK: Dean Spanley [DVD] [2008]