Simon Morris is one of broadcasting's unsung heroes. At 57, he is a fixture of the Kiwi music scene, and was living in Wellington long before it was "happening and Wellywood". Doing Radio New Zealand's weekly At the Movies film review programme and producing The Arts on Sunday takes up most of his time, but he still does a gig with his band the Tone Rangers now and then. He talks a lot about quintessential cowboy flick The Magnificent Seven and confesses that western movies are a guilty pleasure he never quite got over.
Did you get the reviewing job because you're a movie buff? I wouldn't go that far, actually. There were a lot of people who were a lot buffer than I was as far as movies were concerned. I had started out doing music shows [for radio]. I sort of cornered a market doing weird, quirky biography things. It was quite fun, and they were very popular, but I was running out of things that were interesting. After that, the position turned up for a movie reviewer, and I thought I don't know much about movies but I have seen an awful lot of them.
You already had some experience in television, directing Radio with Pictures and writing scripts for Close to Home and Shortland Street. What was it about radio that appealed to you? I was driving through England on holiday and all I had was the radio. I was listening to this stuff thinking it was great. Here's a guy who had done a quarter-of-an-hour programme on the most obscure band from 1953 and still made it interesting. Radio is a fabulous medium - you can do anything. It's how you do it, rather than what it is. Given a choice between something that's a really fascinating topic done boringly and a really tedious topic done with pizazz and sparkle, I know which one I would rather listen to.
How do you put your shows together? I've got into a convenient rut. I pick my three movies - any less than that and you start getting boring; any more than that and you run out of time. Then, I have the luxury of a couple of days to think about them. Perhaps "thinking" is slightly overstating it, but it's mulling away. Usually I have a bit at the start [of the show] that I call the throat-clearing bit, where I try to find something that these three movies have got in common. And if, at the end, you can get a punchline that has something to do with the beginning, then that's always a plus. And if you can't - well, you just do a cheap crack. And I have to say that cheap cracks have been my stock-in-trade for the past four or five years.
Cheap cracks aside, I imagine some people are always going to disagree with what you say. I always try and lay my prejudices out as early and as often as possible, because I want to have it so that somebody says, "Simon Morris gave this thing a great review, but he really likes stupid comedies", or "Simon Morris hated this, but he hates horror films, therefore I will take his opinion with a grain of salt." I think the worst thing you can do as a reviewer is try to pretend that you're objective. You try and figure out what the movie is, you try and figure out how close it gets to doing what it's meant to do, but then a really important part of it is "Did I like it?"
Are there defining movies you have always liked? For most people, the movies that they refer back to are the ones when they were a kid, but for me it was a generation before that. I really like virtually any movie that came out in 1939. Stagecoach and Gunga Din, anything by Billy Wilder, virtually anything by Hitchcock, John Ford or Howard Hawks. It's just something about the confidence of those movies. Even when they were bad, they were confident.
Speaking of bad films, it's Christmas ... I've made certain stylistic decisions. Like I'm not going to review a movie that contains the word "Santa" in its title. And anything that involves two rival American families trying to outdo each other with Christmas decorations - I don't have to do that one, either.
Sounds like a healthy level of cynicism after five years of reviewing. I've seen about 700 movies. Seven hundred movies that I've had to make a decision about. That's horrifying ...
Horrifying but enjoyable? I love it. The thing I love about it is for all that you get some nasty surprises - "Oh God, I thought this was going to be great, but oh no, it's shit" - you get pleasant surprises as well. Half the time I'm pleasantly surprised, and half the time I'm miserably disappointed.
Do you ever walk out of films? Never. The last movie I walked out of was some Barbra Streisand thing, I think. Usually I last the distance, often out of curiosity: can it get any worse than this? Oh my God, it can.
AT THE MOVIES resumes Sunday, January 21 at 1.06pm on National Radio