Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Mike Wallis' clever GOOD FOR NOTHING: the American western, New Zealand style

You've got to hand it to Mike Wallis, the young New Zealander who has worked over the last decade in and as everything from production assistant to visual effects and animation. For his writing and directorial debut, he's set his first film -- GOOD FOR NOTHING -- in the American west but shot it all in his home country, which works not only well but beautifully and buoyantly as the best stand-in for America that I've yet seen. Many of the vistas are simply gorgeous, filmed as they were in New Zealand's still-spectacular because-as-yet-unspolied Central Otago region. And given that country's small population, plus the fact that so many young New Zealanders seem to grow up and leave the place, it may remain unspoiled for quite awhile.

Wallis' cast, too, comes through surprisingly well, with the men all using those ersatz American "Southern accents" so favored by Brits, Aussies and Kiwis when they must mimic us. (The one woman in the mix is supposedly from Britain, but I found her British accent a bit suspect from time to time.) By setting his film sometime around, probably soon after, the Civil War, and keeping the actual location or state unknown -- it's just "the West" -- the filmmaker (shown at right) creates a time, place and ambience that are easy enough to swallow. And enjoy.

One of the smartest thing Willis has done is to keep his dialog to a minimum. Of course, his gunslinger "hero" (The Man, played a well-cast Cohen Holloway, above) is the strong, silent type who will kill without hesitation when he's threatened. The less talking the better, so far as he is concerned. Our heroine, whom the Man kidnaps, is played by Inge Rademeyer (below), an actress who seemed to me a little weak initially, but who grew on me as the movie progressed. By the strong, moving and surprisingly reticent finale, she had won me over completely.

The reason for the duo's journey is two-fold, the first of which involves kidnapping and killing; the second has to do with finding a medical cure for a certain ailment. This leads to an in-town doctor, who in turn recommends a Chinese practitioner (below), and then to a few more killings. From there we go to an Indian medicine man (played by a Maori, Toa Waaka, further below, who sports a pretty good Native American accent!) and then to a few more killings.

The violence is handled quite well. It always makes sense, is never gratuitous, and is sometimes even used for surprising humor (that works). But it also works as a character-builder for The Man. It's part of what he's about, and while it began as our young woman's undoing, it is also her salvation. Our poor guy takes his share of arrows and bullets but never never loses his credibility. And while the movie goes where you expect it to, it also takes a few interesting detours and is handled, over all I think, with remarkable reticence for a first-time filmmaker. For the tiny scene, alone, in which our hero realizes that he has connected his heart to his hard-on, thanks must be given to actor and filmmaker.

This is, in a sense, the arc of the film, and when you think about the movie, once it's over, you'll realize how much and how quietly, these two characters have changed each other. I don't want to over-praise Good for Nothing. Even at 92 minutes, it could be tighter and some of its subsidiary characters might have been given more depth and heft. But it is, in a word, good. And that's enough: a small film -- on a large canvas -- done relatively inexpensively and quickly. It works.

The movie, distributed by Screen Media Films, opens this Friday at New York's Quad Cinema. Other playdates? I don't know, but surely it will make its way onto DVD, where it should find a receptive audience of those who appreciate the western genre, as handled by a filmmaker who knows how to tweak this successfully.

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