Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 in Review: Performance


Another busy year this year. In 2008 I attended 88 live performances; in 2009, I saw 102 live performances, including comedy, dance, circus and theatre. And better yet, I saw a hell of a lot that I liked.

I was, to be honest, fairly discerning this year, and consequently didn't see a lot at the MTC, as I was fairly certain that there weren't a great many of their productions this year that would appeal to me. Reading reviews by my fellow Melbourne arts bloggers, nine times out of ten it seemed I was right. On a more positive note, there are several productions in the company's 2010 season which already look interesting, so I hope to have some positive reviews to post in the coming months.

I also missed quite a few shows I actually wanted to see due to increased Board commitments this year (as well as continuing as Chair of Melbourne Fringe, I also joined the Boards of The Store Room Theatre and BalletLab this year, but more of that in the next post), including several shows at the Malthouse and Red Stitch. Such is life.

But here are some hastily written summaries of my favourite shows (not necessarily 'the best' per se, but those I most engaged with and responded to) for 2009:

Part One: Comedy

The List Operators: This wonderfully madcap duo (pictured above) re-mounted their 2008 Fringe show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival this year, and gods it was good! Never have simple lists been so much fun. I very much look forward to following Richard and Matt's comedic careers in years to come.

Tom Ballard Is What He Is: Coming out as a gay teenager was never funnier than in this autobiographical debut solo stand-up show by Warnambool's Tom Ballard, which I saw in a draft version at St Kilda Laughs, and again, re-tuned and streamlined, at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

Eric: The One Man Sketch Comedy Show: I'm not a huge fan of sketch comedy, but when it's done as brilliantly as this show, with sketches written by some of Melbourne's most exciting writers including Lally Katz, Adam J. Cass and Robert Reid, directed by Scott Brennan and performed by Scott Gooding, what's not to like?

Monster of the Deep 3D: A solo show written and performed by Sydney's Claudia O'Doherty (of comedy troupe Pig Island), this was my stand-out show at the 2009 Melbourne Fringe Festival. Quite simply brilliant. I believe it's returning to Melbourne in April for the Comedy Festival, so don't miss it!

The Bedroom Philosopher: Songs from the 86 Tram: The tram trip from Bundoora to Docklands in song, performed by the remarkable and wonderful Justin Heazlewood, aka The Bedroom Philosopher. Brilliant at the Comedy Festival, but lost some of its impact when performed in a much larger venue at Fringe. Nonetheless, memorable, wonderful and hilarious.

Dishonourable Mention: The Colours' Interactive Comedy Show; All The Single Ladies.

Part Two: Circus

The 7 Fingers - Traces: I saw some great circus this year thanks to the National Institute of Circus Arts (NIDA), Circus Oz and some of the shows at the Melbourne Fringe, but my stand-out circus show of the year was this simply stunning work by Canadian troupe The 7 Fingers. An exciting blend of contemporary circus arts, street skills and parkour set to a thumping soundtrack ranging from rock to drum'n'bass, and performed by a dazzling young troupe. Not just the best circus show of the year, but one of the best circus shows I've ever seen. Simply remarkable.

Dishonourable Mention: Cirque du Soleil's Dralion - bloated, pompous and affected cross-cultural stodge.

Part Three: Theatre

The Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm's GLASOON! This insane, abject and wonderful exploration of masculinity, religion and Oedipal urges was a total headfuck, and the single most breathtaking and brilliant theatre production I saw this year.

Red Stitch's Red Sky Morning: I missed the original production of this lyrical exploration of depression by Tasmanian playwright Tom Holloway in 2008, so leaped at the chance to see it re-staged by the Arts Centre's Full Tilt program this year. My god. What a stunning piece of work it is. The venue didn't quite do the work justice, but nor did it detract from the sheer power of this moving and memorable piece of text-based theatre.

White Whale Theatre's Melburnalia II: Five short plays by five writers, performed by an ensemble cast. Not every play was great (Danny Katz, I'm looking at you) but the standout works, Andrea James' Birrarung (in which an Aboriginal warrior wreaked havoc on a trio of Yarra Tram ticket inspectors) and Aidan Fennessy's beautiful Mentone (inspired by Under Milk Wood, and cleverly incorporating part of the poem into its text) were riveting and unmissable.

Highly Commended: Africa by My Darling Patricia at The Malthouse; Attract/Repel by The Melbourne Town Players at The Store Room; Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd by Stuck Pigs Squealing at The Malthouse.

Dishonourable Mention: Billy Twinkle: Requiem for a Golden Boy at The Arts Centre, a tedious puppet show by and about an egocentric with very limited range; Chicago, a stiff and dated production of the stage musical.

Part Four: Dance

BalletLab's Miracle: I wasn't a BalletLab board member when I saw this show so I don't feel like it's a conflict of interest to list it as one of my stand-out shows for the year. Confronting, vivid, haunting and memorable, this assaulting exploration of religion and fanaticism completely polarised its audiences. Me, I loved it.

Bangarra Dance Theatre's Fire: A Retrospective. This stunning show was a seamless selection of highlights from Bangarra's numerous works over 20 years. Visceral and beautiful, and a striking blend of contemporary and traditional dance styles.

Lucy Guerin Inc's Structure and Sadness: I've never responded so emotionally to a dance work as I did to this piece about the 1970 collapse of the West Gate Bridge, which claimed 35 lives. Originally presented at the 2006 Melbourne International Arts Festival, and re-staged at the Malthouse in November this year, Structure and Sadness is a stirring and captivating piece of dance theatre.

The Hofesh Shechter Company's Uprising/In Your Rooms: My favourite event at this year's Melbourne International Arts Festival was this double bill by the UK-based Hofesh Shechter Company. The first piece, Uprising, was a gloriously masculine work of athletically aggressive choreography; while In Your Rooms was more subtle but no less breathtaking, imaginative and reflective.

2009 in review: Cinema


I've been meaning to get around to blogging for more than a month, but time has continued to slip away from me for a variety of reasons. It's only now, on the last day of 2009, that I've finally found the time - and the motivation - to post a few catch-up comments.

I figure I'll approach my review of the year in three parts: film, performance and personal stuff. Let's start with cinema, shall we?

Compared to 2008, in which I only saw 33 feature films at the cinema, this year I had a much better year, seeing a grand total of 77 new release features, as well as a few good shorts. Given my diverse tastes, it's no surprise that I took in everything from homegrown arthouse treats to big budget blockbusters, and everything in between.

Overall it's been a pretty good year, especially Australian films, as various pundits have been discussing at length over the last few weeks. But who cares what they think? This is all about what I think, isn't it?

So, in no particular order, here's a (very subjective) list of some of my favourite and most memorable films of 2009:

MILK (dir. Gus Van Sant). One of the most satisfying biopics I've ever seen, with brilliant performances from Sean Penn as gay rights activist Harvey Milk, James Franco as his lover Scott Smith, and a mesmerising turn by Josh Brolin as Dan White, Milk's killer. Archival and contemporary footage are perfectly blended in this outstanding, moving and deeply relevant movie.

MARY AND MAX
(dir. Adam Elliot). In a year of great Australian films, this was one of the best: a claymation story of trans-continental friendship, a wonky paean to being an outsider, and a gloriously realised homage to suburbia.

STAR TREK
(dir. J.J. Abrams). Vividly re-imagined, this re-boot of the Star Trek series was deeply satisfying for fans and non-fans (such as me) alike. An exuberant, energetic and breath-taking re-working of a sci-fi classic.

KISSES
(dir. Lance Daly). At the opposite end of the spectrum from Star Trek was this lo-fi, low budget, and small scale Irish charmer about two pre-teens running away from their grim estate homes to the bright lights of Dublin. Simple, sublime and deeply engaging (and one of 29 films I saw at this year's Melbourne International Film Festival).

QUEMAR LAS NAVES aka 'BURN THE BRIDGES' (dir. Francisco Franco Alba). One of the highlights of this year's Melbourne Queer Film Festival, this stunning example of Mexican Gothic featured an abundance of baroque elements - a decaying family home, a dying mother, a poisonously close relationship between a brother and sister, Catholicism, tortured homoeroticism and adolescent longing. It could have been a mess, especially as it was the director's debut feature; instead, it was remarkable.

LOOKING FOR ERIC (dir. Ken Loach). A comedy from the master of kitchen sink miserablism? Yes, and a fantastic one at that, which was nonetheless also a quintessentially Ken Loach film. A memorable and moving story of hope, love, family life and redemption, with a dash of magic realism, and a hefty dose of football superstar Eric Cantona.

THE MAN WHO LOVED YNGVE (dir. Stian Kristiansen). One of the freshest, most memorable 'coming out' films I've ever seen, set in Norway in the 1980s and peppered with tracks from such bands as The Cure, REM and The Jesus and Mary Chain.

Honourable mentions go to:

  • T is for Teacher (a great doco about trans teachers by Melbourne director Rohan Spong).
  • The powerful expose of Indonesian culpability, Balibo (dir. Robert Connolly).
  • The much-lauded Samson and Delilah (dir. Warwick Thornton).
  • The stunning and provocative doco The Cove (dir. Louie Psihoyos).
  • Brendan and the Secret of Kells (a beautiful animated kids flick from Ireland co-directed by Tomm Moore & Nora Twomey).
  • The poetically gut-wrenching Van Diemen's Land (dir. Jonathan auf der Heide).
  • And from New Zealand, the life-affirming and lovely doco, The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls (dir. Leanne Pooley).
And the worst films of 2009? Just briefly, they included:

  • Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (dir. Patrick Tatupoulos). Turgid, wooden and lacking both terror and imagination.
  • All About Steve (dir. Phil Traill). An excruiciatingly unfunny 'comedy' starring Sandra Bullock.
  • Blessed (dir. Ana Kokkinos). Ugh. Don't get me started.
  • Humpday (dir. Lynn Shelton). Inane, meandering and sucked all the drama out of a potentially fascinating subject.
  • Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (dir. David Yates). Not so much bad as boring and disappointing.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Did you take this photo?


I've had a Fairfax journo call me asking permission to reprint a photo from the Melbourne Zombie Shuffle, but they need a hi-res version of it ASAP, and would also like to credit the photographer responsible. If you took it, could you please drop me a line ASAP? My email is burntime (at) netspace.net.au

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Waters of Mars


Just when I'd started to think that RTD had run out of steam, based on the previous two Doctor Who specials, which had their moments but were overall, kinda naff, tonight I watched - and loved - The Waters of Mars. Brrr. What a cracker of an episode. It's scary to see how far hubris can humble a man, and I think we're about to see just that in the next two specials, which The Waters of Mars has set up beautifully.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Things currently rocking my world (or not, as the case may be)


I had the pleasure of seeing the opening night of Bangarra Dance Theatre's 20th anniversary celebration, Fire - A Retrospective at The Arts Centre on Friday night, and god, what an amazing show it was. The only other Bangarra production I've seen previously was last year's Mathinna, and it didn't especially impress me - it felt far too literal a work. But in Fire, the company's memorable and remarkable fusion of contemporary and traditional Indigenous dance traditions are beautifully and memorably showcased.

The production opens with a traditional dance from the Yirrakala Community performed by cultural consultant Kathy Balngayngu Marika and the full company ensemble, while the penultimate work is a gloriously euphoric piece from the Torres Straight Islands. Sandwiched between these pieces are a remarkable range of dances, some haunting in their beauty, others confronting in the sense of anguish they swiftly and viscerally convey. And given that this was a greatest hits package, it was a remarkably consistent and coherent affair.

Following on soon after the traditional dances which open the show, Deborah Brown is graceful and beautiful in 'Brolga', from Bangarra's 2001 work Corroboree. Thereafter we plunge into four pieces from 1995's Ochres - a groundbreaking work in its time, and still a remarkable encapsulation of the company's signature style - including the masculine power of 'Black', danced with vigour and skill by Jhuny-Boy Borja, Leonard Mickelo, Daniel Riley McKinley and Perun Bonser.

Next comes a segment exploring Indigenous social issues:, including the harrowing 'Victims' from 2001, in which four men writhe and curse under spotlights, evoking abuse and anger, rage and shame; and the poignant and hauntingly beautiful 'Blankets' from 2002.

After interval, an equally impressive and exhuberent sequence of dance works was performed, including a touching tribute to the late Russell Page, one of the major creative forces behind Bangarra in its early years, together with his brothers David (who composes the scores for much of the company's work) and Stephen, Bangarra's choreographer and Artistic Director.

Fire - A Retrospective is a stirring work: vivid, passionate, tender and angry, graceful and powerful, startling and sensual. In an already excellent year of contemporary dance works, it is a truly remarkable production, and I urge you to experience it as soon as you can.

Bangarra Dance Theatre's Fire - A Retrospective at The Arts Centre Playhouse until November 14. Bookings online or call 1300 182 183.




Paranormal Activity

I've been seeing a lot of films in the last couple of weeks - six in the last fortnight, to be exact, most of which I discussed briefly in my last blog post (I might write a more detailed review of Prime Mover later in the week, if I find time).

The most recent was a preview screening tonight of the US independent horror film Paranormal Activity, a low budget and low-fi take on the haunted house story. Much hyped, I'm sorry to say that I was very disappointed when I walked out of the cinema at the end of this evening's screening.

Directed by Oren Peli, and reputedly made for just US $15,000, the film stars Katie Featherston as Katie, a student who is the target of an increasingly active and malevolent haunting, and Micha Sloat as her affluent boyfriend Micha, who at the start of the film has splashed out on some expensive AV equipment in order to document whatever is going bump in the night in their two-story San Diego home.

While it's certainly the marketing sensation of the year, there's little that's clever or original about Paranormal Activity. Performances are weak, there's little or no internal logic and consistency to the story and its characters, and the film telegraphs its frights to a significant degree. I'll admit that the first few times spooky things started happening I was quite creeped out, but once I identified the same deep bass sound on the soundtrack each time something scary was about to happen, which serves to alert its audience to stop texting/making out and pay attention, I stopped being tense and actually started to get a bit bored.

Paranormal Activity is a ghost story for the You Tube generation. It's fun, briefly, but it's pretty dumb, as are its all-too-convincingly banal characters. See it with an audience and enjoy the screams and shrieks from the easily scared sitting near you, but don't expect too much. This is, after all, a film that gives away its allegedly 'shocking' ending in its own trailer.

Paranormal Activity opens nationally across Australia on December 3.

Rating: Two sporadically startled shrieks out of five.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Life, the universe, entertainment and finances


Normal programming will return as soon as I can drag myself away from catching up on season three of Heroes. I skipped season two altogether on the advice of several friends, and jumped into season three yesterday, only to find myself watching eight episodes back to back (my excuse being that it was hot outside and, being a delicate, retiring sort, I needed to stay indoors).

There's all sorts of things I should be doing instead - reading through the 273 emails in my inbox, planning my radio show for the next few weeks, listening to the pile of CDs I've been sent and the masses of unread media releases that are building up into a dangerous heap on the coffee table, lugging a pile of washing to the nearest laundrette, vaccumming, dishes, etc - but I think today all I can be fucked doing is watching more TV.

It's a bit indicative of my life these last few weeks since I quit MCV, and I'm justifying it by claiming that it's some much needed downtime.

In the last two weeks I've devoured three new Torchwood novels, which is amazing in itself - usually it takes me two weeks to read a single book given how busy I normally am. Of the three, my favourite was James Goss' cracking yarn, Risk Assessment - some great plot twists and an extremely memorable new character - while the weakest was the short story collection Consequences, although the latter did feature one excellent story, Andrew Cartmel's 'The Wrong Hands'.

I've also seen several films, including three at the inaugural Nordic Film Festival: the wartime thriller Flame & Citron, the cerebral gothic horror flick Sauna, and the exquisite and entertaining The Man Who Loved Ingve (pictured above), the most refreshing coming out film I've seen in ages. I've linked to reviews of all three films I wrote for Arts Hub, but as ever you'll need to be Arts Hub members to read them.

But here's a sneak preview if you're not an Arts Hub member, and as a bonus, each review excerpt contains a link to the official site of each movie in case you want to learn more. Never say I don't spoil my blog readers!

Flame & Citron: "Less a film about noble partisans fighting the good fight, and more about the way even the noblest of intentions can lead one astray in the fog of war, Flame & Citron is a dense, dark and ambitious tale, and one of the most successful (and most expensive) Danish films to date."

Sauna: "Annila has crafted a very European horror story in Sauna, with the emphasis on suspense and atmosphere rather than shock and gore. He successfully utilizes all the elements of the film’s broad palate, from the central characters’ sibling rivalry and the all-too-fresh tensions of a 25-year long war, through to a palpable sense of unease and decay and the gothic motifs of the ghost story. The film’s production design is visceral and vivid, and performances are excellent – especially Ville Virtanen as the war-haunted Eerik Spore, whose spectacles hide the self-loathing eyes of the habitual killer."

The Man Who Loved Ingve: "Featuring charming performances from some of Norway’s best young actors, and incisive direction from newcomer Stian Kristiansen (who was still studying at Sweden’s National Film School in Lillehammer at the time he was appointed to helm the production) The Man Who Loved Yngve avoids clichés and sentimentality while telling a fresh and authentic story about adolescent life. Characters are appropriately inarticulate, avoiding the faux-adult teenage dialogue depicted in such staples of US drama as Dawson’s Creek, The OC and more recent productions such as Gossip Girl; and the pangs and pains of adult life are fleetingly though accurately portrayed."

I've also seen the new Australian film about love, dreams and trucks by writer/director David Caesar, Prime Mover, which I wanted to like but didn't - to quote Don Groves from SBS Films, it's a 'straight-forward, cliché-riddled tale' - and writer/director Roland Emmerich's disaster-porn epic 2012 - which I enjoyed a lot more than I thought I would: it's big, it's dumb, but it's surprisingly fun.

I've also been stressing about my finances, since I don't have a new source of income to replace the money I was making working two days a week at MCV; and I've been worrying about how much I've been drinking while I've been off work - it's getting a bit excessive, in all honesty. That said, I guess I can only fight one vice at a time, and since I kicked a major speed habit earlier this year I probably shouldn't beat myself up too much. However, when I do get paid next week I think it might be time to buy some running shoes and take up some serious exercise, since I don't want to end up like my old man, who dropped dead at only 47. That's just five years away from where I'm standing...

Anyway, since I've been meaning to properly update this blog for a couple of weeks, I'm actually pretty happy with this morning's output. That's one thing I can cross off my long list of things to do, which means it's time to watch a few more episodes of Heroes!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Goodbye job.

So, I quit my job at the gay and lesbian publishing company MCV this week. Well, not this week exactly. I gave notice three weeks ago and finished up on Monday, which is an odd day to have your last day at work but hey that's production cycles on a weekly fag rag for you.

The reasons for my quitting were many and varied; indeed I'd been contemplating the move since the start of the year; but the thing that ultimately forced my hand was a request from the boss in Sydney that I change the days I worked for the company from Mondays and Fridays to Thursdays and Fridays. Since Thursday is the day I do my radio show on 3RRR, I said no. The rest is history.

Last night, Friday, was my very low key farewell drinks from the job. I'll miss the people I work with, especially the editorial team, Andrew and Rachel, but not the job itself. The income, on the other hand...

Hopefully I'll be starting a new part-time job freelancing for Citysearch.com.au within a couple of weeks. Luckily I still have my two days a week at Arts Hub to get me through, although I suspect things will get pretty tight fairly quickly, given that Arts Hub pays monthly and I'm terrible at budgeting. Not to mention terrible at saving. At 42, I have zero savings in the bank and still live hand to mouth, as I did in my 20's. This really has to change.

I spent today drinking, going to a mate's place for the first BBQ of summer - it's not officially summer yet, but on the other hand it was 30 degrees, which is definitely summer weather - and watching the recent Star Trek film on DVD.

Tonight I was supposed to go to a party but I was feeling anti-social so instead I've sat at home drinking, reading other people's blogs, and listening to the two Halloween parties that are taking place at my neighbours' houses on either side of my block of flats. So much for having an early night - they kept me awake until 3am.

* * *

Editor's note: This post was started and saved on Thursday October 29, continued on Saturday October 31, and then not published until the following week, Sunday November 8. I really must pull my finger out and start blogging more frequently.

As of the time I finally got around to publishing this post I still don't have a new part-time job, and my severance pay is rapidly running out. Oh well. Shit happens.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

More thoughts on MIAF 2009 (part two)


In which I finally get around to briefly blogging about the rest of the performances I saw at this year's Melbourne International Arts Festival. I haven't blogged about any of the visual arts events this year as I didn't see very many of them, save for Callum Morton's Valhalla, which was a great piece of work though I think the location it was placed, and the fact that it was placed on a plinth, did it a diservice.

These last few notes are perforce brief, written more as a reminder to myself than for any other reason, so you might want to skip this unless you're especially fascinated by the festival, or my life...

The Dictionary of Imaginary Places

This transcendent work was a piece of verbatim theatre, a collage of Melbourne mapped out through a series of real life conversations on trains that were recorded and then turned into a script performed by Heather Bolton, Christopher Brown, Rita Kalnejais and James Wardlaw. Violence and threat rubbed shoulders with comedy and surrealism, and expressions of age and difference, hope and desire played out over the course of an hour. Created and directed by Anna Tregloan, with a sound design by J. David Franzke, and co-presented by MIAF, Arts House and the Store Room Theatre (where I am a member of the interim advisory committee), this was a simple but sublime work that allowed the audience to find their own meaning in the text.

Heavy Metal in Baghdad

Great doco about Iraq's only performing heavy metal band and their travails, though the screening suffered from some sound issues in the Forum, as the PA appeared to be tuned for the bands who followed, which made some of the interviewees a bit hard to understand. I've reviewed the film in more detail here, at Arts Hub.

Chunky Move - Black Marrow

Wow. Not always successful, but a fascinating and imaginative piece of dance theatre centred around apocalyptic themes.

The Black Arm Band - dirtsong

A bit middle of the road for my tastes, musically, though nonetheless a passionate and heartfelt evening of song. You can read my detailed review of the gig on Arts Hub if you're a member...

Ramallah Underground

My final festival performance for MIAF 2009 was this vibrant, excellent Palestinian hip-hop trio, Ramallah Underground. They rock. Check out their Myspace page.

Some thoughts on MIAF (part the first)

Finally, with Brett Sheehy's first Melbourne International Arts Festival now officially over as of last night, I am at last finding the time to jot down some thoughts about some of the events I saw. Better late than never, I suppose!

The Abbey Theatre - Terminus

Ireland's national theatre company presented this powerful and surprising work by playwright Mark O'Rowe at The Malthouse, a gritty and grotesque piece of dark magic realism written and performed as a series of three interlinking monologues. An older woman working at a telephone counselling service and her alienated and unhappy adult daughter are caught up in the affairs of a vicious serial killer who goes on a murderous rampage after selling his soul to the Devil and getting cheated in process.

Written in lyrical verse evoking both the language of the street and gothic fantasy, this was an engaging albeit grim piece of entertainment, and featured an outstanding performance from Karl Shiels as the sweet-voiced killer. Earthy language, unpredictable meter and creative wordplay reminiscent of Irish writers such as Joyce and Jamie O’Neill resulted in an enthralling text, balanced out by intense performances and dramatic storytelling, with the sonorous score and simple but effective staging rounding out the work.


The Hofesh Shechter Company - Uprising/In Your Rooms

These two outstanding contemporary dance works were one of my absolute highlights for the festival.

The masculine physicality of Uprising, which was inspired by the 2006 Paris riots, was ably and beautifully conveyed by seven male dancers: slaps on the back turned into blows, bodies prowled ape-like across the stage, tender embraces became wrestling matches, both tender and competitive; their movements accompanied by a tribal, industrially percussive score that fitted perfectly with scenes where the performers were marshalled and drilled like soldiers or assembly-line workers.

In Your Rooms
, featuring 11 male and female performers, evoked the risks and delights of relationships, alienation and compassion, with dancers plunging from light into shadow accompanied by a dynamic live soundtrack which, like the score for Uprising, was also composed by the Israeli-born Hofesh Shechter.

Shechter also contributes to In Your Rooms in voice-over, musing upon the macrocosm and microcosm and the connections, both personal and impersonal, between the two; while the score is played live by a band who are elevated above the dancers at the rear of the stage. A sample of the Sigur Ros track 'Takk...' was woven into the score, to great effect.

Viewed together, these were masterful, moving and beautiful dance works.

Transe Express - Mischievous Bells

This much-hyped work - part of the festival's free opening night celebrations - left me cold. Performers went up, they went around, they banged drums and rang bells, all the while suspended from a flower-like mechanical structure that gradually unfolded around them as it carried them on high. Repetitive and tedious once the initial 'awww' factor had worn off.

Rembrandt's J'Accuse

Peter Greenaway claims that Rembrandt's famous 1642 painting The Night Watch is "an indictment ... an accusation", and in this didactic and hectoring film the British filmmaker sets out to prove his point, while simultaneously asserting his argument that modern culture is visually illiterate. It's ironic then, that Greenaway has made such a talky, text-heavy film - in almost every frame the filmmaker is lecturing in voiceover or popping up as a talking head to ram his point home: that The Night Watch holds the clues to a murder.

You can read my detailed review of J'Accuse here, at Arts Hub. If you're not an Arts Hub member (why not?) I can summarise by saying that not only is Greenaway's film a somewhat dry and rather pompous lecture, it also selectively ignores established facts which don't fit with Greenaway's claims.

As leading Australian art critic Robert Nelson recently wrote in The Age:

‘Visual literacy consists not in inventing things that aren't there, but connecting the things that are. While reproaching the visually illiterate who only see what they want to see, Greenaway plunges into the very fallacy that he scorns.’


Science in the Dark: Elemental

I really, really wanted to like this work. Its creator, poet alicia sometimes, has been a friend of mine for many years, and I'm also good friends with the other three poets involved in the creation of the work, Sean M. Whelan, Emilie Zoey Baker and Paul Mitchell. Unfortunately, as much as I'd like to be able to rave about this show - an exploration of the mysteries of the universe through poetry, music and video projection, performed in the unique setting of Melbourne's Planetarium in Spotswood - it really didn't work for me, at least not as much as I'd hoped.

Musically and poetically it was great, especially Baker's, sometimes' and Whelan's work - I especially enjoyed Baker's science-meets-Buddhism take on the universe - but too many of the visual elements seemed simplistic and out of place, particularly during Baker's work. Had the performance utilised more of the star-scape projections of the planetarium proper, it would have been more effective, I think, and captured more of the coupling of art and science that the program promised. Too, I felt to much of the evening lacked the edge provided by live performance: pre-recorded, the poems sounded smooth but lacked the zest and variety that comes with live delivery.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

More Fringe, the start of MIAF

Just a quick note to say that I will be trying to catch up with some micro-reviews of the remaining shows I saw at the Melbourne Fringe Festival over the weekend (I saw 32 shows in all this year, so have been struggling to find the time to write about them) as well as the first couple of MIAF shows I've seen, the Abbey Theatre's gorgeously grotesque Terminus and the Hofesh Schecter Company's dance works Uprising and In Your Rooms, both of which I very much enjoyed.

So far so good for MIAF, in fact, though I was interested to see Peter Greenaway's take on The Last Supper, and his claims about visual literacy, roundly criticised by Robert Nelson in today''s Age. I suspect Greenaway might have a bit to say about that tonight at the Q+A after the screening of his film J'Accuse!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Around the Fringe (part the last)

Clearly I'm not going to get around to reviewing the remaining 16-odd shows I saw at this year's Fringe. Apologies to all the artists concerned, but 42 performances was a lot to see, let alone blog about! Here's a list of the remaining events I saw, just for posterities' sake. Those marked with an asterisk are the shows I recommend you see if they return at the Comedy Festival next year...

What a Little Moonlight Can Do

Ghostboy with Golden Virtue

The List Operators for Kids*

Take Off Your Skin (TOYS)

Antics Shop*

The Bedroom Philosopher: Songs from the 86 Tram


The Caravan of Love - Pure Kunst

Attract/Repel*

Dead River

Andrew McClelland's Somewhat Accurate History of the Fall of the Roman Empire*

Hannah Gadsby - Kiss Me Quick I'm Full of Jubes

Anyone for Tennis - Cutthroat

Newspower

Daniel Kitson and Colleagues

The Last Gasp

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Here be spoilers

Oh dear. I seem to have fallen hopelessly behind on blogging about Fringe, but hopefully I'll get a chance to do a brief round-up of the most recent shows I've seen tomorrow - which now number 26 in total - on my afternoon off.

Right now, I just wanted to post a photo that made me go squee.

It's from the first epsiode of the new series of Doctor Who - yes, that's right, the one that hasn't aired yet. They're filming it in the UK as we speak.

So, wanna see it?

Beware spoilers!

Ok.

You were warned.

Here it is!


Yep, Matt Smith as The Doctor, and Karen Gillane as Amy Pond. Ain't it grand? Photo taken on set - presumably with a very long lens - by Alun Vega.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Around the Fringe (part five)


So, as you've probably noticed, I've fallen well behind when it comes to blogging about everything I've seen in the Fringe Festival this year. I blame the fact that I kept going to see stuff instead of sitting at home blooging. Anyway, in an attempt to make up for my tardiness, here are a plethora of quickly-written micro-reviews of some of the other shows I've seen to date...


Bart Freebairn - A Breathtaking Magical Journey into the Ordinary

In which Bart awkwardly but endearingly discovers the magic of everyday life. Loose and not especially adventurous stand-up, but with a certain relaxed charm; especially the stories about family members and farting. Working with a director to tighten up his material would greatly assist Bart's work, methinks.

Three stars



The Hounds

Frentic pace and frantic mugging didn't work to The Hounds' advantage on their first preview night, which was when I saw this show, although working with a director who specialises in physical theatre has certainly worked to their advantage; both tightening their on-stage antics and opening up their performances, if that makes sense. As per their previous show, The Last Bucket of Water, this was essentially a series of sketches and ideas hung together on a fairly loose premise, although it was certainly a more successful production, I think. This local trio generate a lot of energy, which is matched by the audience's goodwill. Lots of laughs, but not an especially memorable night of comedy.
Three stars


Fuck: A Love Story

Performer Emma Sachsse has a lot of potential and some real pizazz, which works to her advantage in this bawdy show about her sexual (mis)adventures. I'm all for frank and occasionally crass comedy, but she needs to work at her pacing and delivery if she's to reach her real potential: too many stops and starts and awkward pauses in this show worked against the material Sachsse delivered.

Two and a half stars


Welcome to the Jungle

Local performer Bron Batten is one half of the organisers of The Last Tuesday Society, which has proven a fertile place for creative experimentation lately, with several Last Tuesday alumni launching solo shows at this year's Fringe. Welcome to the Jungle is one such show, and sees Batten presenting a series of sketches based around anthropomorphic charactersations of animals, including a transgendered bear, a depressed pantomime horse, and a lonely hearts club whale. Not every act hit its mark, but the shows sometimes uneven tone was easy to forgive in light of its quirky content and real heart.

Three stars


Monster of the Deep 3D

This gem of a show, written and performed by Claudia O'Doherty (of comedy troupe Pig Island) is little more than a presentation about the history and culture of Aquaplex, an underwater city established in the 70s by the world's governments, and recently destroyed in a cataclysmic and unfortunate explosion. In lo-fi quirky style, Claudia uses flipcharts and handmade props to provide hilarious insights into this fictional aquatic city. Beautifully structured and paced, and extremely unpredictable, O'Doherty's faux-naive persona perfectly offset her flights of fantasy. Not only one of the best shows in the festival, but featuring the best props I've seen in the Fringe for the last few years.

Four stars

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Around the Fringe (part four)

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in the following reviews are made in a private capacity, and do not represent the opinions of the Melbourne Fringe Board, of which I am Chair.

And oh boy are these reviews running well behind schedule. Here are some increasingly brief comments about the three shows I saw on Sunday...


FELICITY WARD READS FROM THE BOOK OF MORON

There are several comedians who are utilising/exploiting the Fringe audience in order to test out new material for a fully realised show for next year's Comedy Festival; but then there are people like Felicity Ward, who is experimenting with her craft in interesting and creative ways and testing out a new approach to performance.

Here, Ward reads essays from the comfort of a large armchair, evoking both David Sedaris and the sort of mythical uncle who would smoke a pipe and regale you with fanciful tales of their youthful shennanigans in days gone by. She has a pipe (and a great gag involving an open fireplace at the start of the show, as well as some simple but effective set dressing) and even a faithful hound played by fellow comedian David Quirk who brings her her slippers; but more importantly Ward has great timing, a warped sense of humour, and no shame when it comes to discussing her private life.

Everything from irritable bowel syndrome to difficult gigs got a mention on the night I saw the show. A simple but effective bit of audience participation adds an element of chance to the performance. I really enjoyed this, and can't wait to see what it evolves into.

Rating: Three and a half stars


VIGILANTELOPE PRESENTS 'TALES OF THE GOLDEN LEASE'

This inspired piece of tall tale telling is definitely my favourite comedy show at the festival so far (or at least it was when I started writing this review on Monday...). An adept combination of sketch comedy, dance routines and physical performance coupled with a rollicking story about Satan vs Heaven Inc and a running gag that plays on the word 'disguise' to hilarious effect, adds up to one hell of an enjoyable performance. Think Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits meets your latest argument with the landlord, and you'll have some idea of what's in store for you in this show. If only all sketch comedy was this good!

Rating: Four stars


TOM BALLARD - SEVERAL NIGHTS ONLY

I really, really like Tom's work, but while this show starts off magnificently (and unpredictably) and also ends extremely strongly, it's simply not as good as his solo debut at this year's Comedy Festival. Difficult second album syndrome strikes again? I reckon Tom should take a year off, be a regular 19yo for a while, and come back refreshed and focused on new material. That said, kudos to him for not taking the easy way out and simply re-presenting his ComFest show, as several others have done for this year's Fringe.

At the start of the show Tom promised us ‘just jokes’ and that’s what we got, but as much as I think he’s a super-talented and intelligent young comic with charisma and stage presence to burn – and hey he bats for my team, and does so in a confident and humourous way which doesn’t rely on stereotypes nor perpetrates them – I wasn’t entirely sold on this show. Yes, I laughed a lot thanks to Ballard's timing and delivery, but some of the jokes seemed a touch forced and the material a bit thin on the ground.

Essentially, this show suffers somewhat from feeling a bit generic - there are some vibrant moments of unbridled originality, but the subject matter (other than the aforementioned opening and ending) are a bit too stuck in generic stand-up comedy territory. It's still bloody funny though, and I laughed heaps. Oh, and did I mention that I am insanely jealous at just how fricken talented Ballard is at such a young age? Over-achieving lanky bastard. ;-)

Rating: Three stars

For more Fringe reviews, check out the new blog by 'John Bailey', Capital Idea, Express Media's Buzzcuts program, and the excellent Spark Online; while The Groggy Squirrel is running reviews from the comedy stream of the Fringe program.

Around the Fringe (part three)

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in the following reviews are made in a private capacity, and do not represent the opinions of the Melbourne Fringe Board, of which I am Chair.

THE POST APOCALYPTIC USERS' GUIDE

Xavier Michelides first presented this highly enjoyable evening of stand up at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival earlier this year. I liked it then, and I like it now, even though it is exactly the same show as far as I can tell.

Linked together by a struggling comedian MCing a comedy club in a world where aliens have just invaded, Michelides deftly switches through a range of characters, including the 'End of the World is Nigh' man who has a direct line to God, a half-man half cockroach, and an Evil Mastermind of the sort James Bond and Superman regularly come up against.

While not constantly, side-splittingly funny, The Post Apocalyptic Users' Guide is a consistently entertaining show, exceptionally well structured and strongly delivered. Definitely the sort of show you’ll constantly chuckle through, with the occasional hearty guffaw at key moments of the show, such as in my favourite routine, about a man in love with a zombie - which is performed entirely in mime!

Rating: Three and a half stars

ALL THE SINGLE LADIES

Oh dear. There’s the germ of a good comedy show here, but this fitfully funny production about two socially retarded computer nerds with unrealised crushes on one another isn’t it.

The two main characters, played by writers/performers Tommy Dassalo and Bart Freebairn, were underdeveloped and overacted, and the style of humour – which was meant to highlight the characters’ misogyny – occasionally slipped over the line to become itself misogynistic. The inclusion of video interludes was clunky, though some of the videos were themselves quite funny; and the show's ending was particularly weak.

Dave Callan gets bonus points for appearing in an Elvis jumpsuit (and for what the jumpsuit reveals, which makes me sound slightly pervy, but is actually a reference to a joke in the show) but otherwise there's not a lot in this show to recommend I'm afraid.

Rating: Two stars

For more Fringe reviews, check out the new blog by 'John Bailey', Capital Idea, Express Media's Buzzcuts program, and the excellent Spark Online; while The Groggy Squirrel is running reviews from the comedy stream of the Fringe program.

Around the Fringe (part two)

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in the following reviews are made in a private capacity, and do not represent the opinions of the Melbourne Fringe Board, of which I am Chair.

WHILE I'M AWAY

A short, simple but utterly charming production, While I'm Away sees writer/performer Telia Nevile build a solo show around the Poet Laureate character she's developed over the last 18-odd months at The Last Tuesday Society. Gently mocking the pretentions of bad performance poetry while simultaneously using poetry to explore themes of love, life and contemporary angst is no mean feat, but Nevile manages it with aplomb, while simultaneously screening a series of antique slides which counterpoint and compliment the verses and stories she presents. There's a bittersweet tenderness to this production that I found utterly disarming, as well as a sharp, dry wit and subtle, goofy, fragile charm. Highly recommended.

Rating: Three and a half stars


ASLEEP IN A SECRET

A solo performance by Skye Gellmann, which like his co-devised 2008 show Scattered Tacks takes the traditional tropes of circus and refines them down into a marvellous minimalism. With only a slide projector, a bowling ball and a couple of wooden blocks to assist him, Gellmann focuses the audience's to focus on the human body and contemplate what it is capable of. There's a cold purity to Asleep in a Secret that some may find offputting, but which I found enthralling; it's like Skye has boiled away all the extraneous elements of physical performance to focus on the heart of circus, with an entertaining game of Chinese Whispers added to the mix.

Rating: Three and a half stars


For more Fringe reviews, check out the new blog by 'John Bailey', Capital Idea, Express Media's Buzzcuts, and the excellent Spark Online; while The Groggy Squirrel is running reviews from the comedy stream of the Fringe program.

Around the Fringe (part one)

So, as I mentioned yesterday, the 2009 Melbourne Fringe Festival is upon us. Huzzah! Featuring over 4000 artists and more than 300 shows, it's a public expression of Melbourne's creativity; and is unique among Fringe Festivals in that over 85% of shows staged are by Melbourne artists, rather than by performers from interstate or overseas.

The plan is to post reviews of Fringe shows here on a daily basis - hopefully. Knowing my schedule I might not always find the time, so I can't make any promises. Other places to look for Fringe reviews are the new blog by 'John Bailey', Capital Idea, Express Media's Buzzcuts program, and the excellent Spark Online; while The Groggy Squirrel is running reviews from the comedy stream of the Fringe program.

Before I get underway, just a quick disclaimer - the opinions expressed in the following reviews are made in a private capacity, and do not represent the opinions of the Melbourne Fringe Board, of which I'm Chair. With that said, it's on with the shows!

+1 SWORD

When I saw this stand-up comedy show about Dungeons & Dragons listed in the Fringe program, it was the very first thing I booked for, and I'm pleased to say I wasn't disappointed. It's a little slight but very silly, and definitely enjoyable regardless of whether or not you've ever rolled a d20. It's also perfectly suited to the cellar in which it's presented in Collingwood.

Local comics Ben and Richard McKenzie are not related, but share an abiding love for fantasy role-playing games as well as a surname. This new show explores the history of the Dungeons & Dragons game and introduces the audience to some of its more ludicrous concepts (the sketches of monsters such as the Beholder and the Trapper that are displayed to the audience not only illustrate such concepts, they're also extremely well executed; and attest to the level of detail invested in the show, which extends to lots of props, and even a mysterious hooded figure who greets you at the door; a trope stright out of D&D). It also provides plenty of laughs at the expense of the game and those who play it, but it's definitely a laughing with rather than at sort of show.

The show's only real weakness is that it's clearly very new. The night I saw it, which was opening night, it felt pretty loose. With more development, or as the show's run continues, it should definitely get tighter and stronger.

Rating: Three stars


ECOSEXUAL

Staged in the highly appropriate confines of The Order of Melbourne, a salubrious bar in the CBD, Ecosexual is a cabaret show exploring environmental and feminist themes, and incorporating elements of circus, burlesque and cabaret. Unfortunately it does so in a somewhat stilted way, with some of the of performances residing at the amateur side of the scale. A lack of vocal projection from some of the cast members doesn't help proceedings, and nor do overlong and awkward change-overs between acts. That said, there were clearly some opening night nerves on display the evening I saw this show, so as the season progresses some of these flaws should fall away, allowing the more accomplished and charismatic performers to come to the fore.

Katherine Copsey, who both directs and stars in the show, appears to have been overly ambitious, given that this is her first performance in the Fringe. Next year I'd advise that she either find a director to help her tighten its structure and improve the quality of the acts, which would also assist in drawing out some of this show's interesting but poorly articulated themes (such as burlesque's empowerment of female sexuality vs the demeaning raunch culture); or she should withdraw from performing and just direct the show. She definitely has talent, as well as a good voice and stage presence, but this production isn't doing her and her fellow cast members justice.

Rating: Two and a half stars

Saturday, September 26, 2009

I've been taking a breather...

Had you noticed? I haven't blogged about anything for the past month, because quite frankly, I didn't have much to blog about. I mean, I could have written about the night I drunkenly decided to start inventing details, characters and a history for a Melbourne branch of the Torchwood Institute after listening to James Goss' excellent Torchwood: Golden Age radio play; or how I faced the couple-world that is Ikea to buy new bookshelves, but such events didn't strike me as particularly blog-worthy.

But now, all that's changed.

No, I won't be telling you how I bravely sneaked past the Single Police who guard the borders of Ikea, where lone homos without partners, such as myself, who dare to enter are shot on sight as pair-bonded hetero and homo couples watch on cooing and arguing over matching tableware named after small Danish streams. Though I might, if you're very lucky, one day reveal the secret location of the Torchwood Institute (Melbourne branch) circa 1912 and details of the curious individuals who staff it - assuming that is that I ever get around to writing up my drunken notes into something ressembling a radio play, a novel or even a campaign for a Torchwood-inspired riff on the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game.

No, the reason that my blog is coming out of a month of hibernation is because the 2009 Melbourne Fringe Festival is now officially underway! Hurrah! All across Melbourne, over 4000 independent artists and theatre-makers and comedians and creative sorts of every description are mounting exhibitions and performances in theatres and galleries, laneways and store rooms. I've already seen five shows at the Fringe since Wednesday, and I have at least another 30 booked between now and October 11, when the festival ends.

Blogging about the wonderful range of shows I have seen and will see more of will commence shortly. Probably tomorrow. First there's this pesky, minor matter called the AFL Grand Final that I have to watch first...

But you - yes, YOU - should book yourself a ticket to a Fringe show immediately. Well, unless you live in Scotland or Sweden or somewhere like that of course. In which case you're excused. On with the show!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Review: TAKING WOODSTOCK

STARRING DEMETRI MARTIN, IMELDA STAUNTON

DIRECTED BY ANG LEE

3.5 stars

Woodstock, the music festival which became the crowning moment of the hippie era, would not have happened were it not for Elliot Tiber, a young gay man trying to save his parents’ struggling motel.

Exploiting his position as the youngest ever president of his local Chamber of Commerce, Tiber (comedian Demetri Martin) gives permission for the concert be staged on a local farm in order to ensure customers for the El Monaco Motel, setting in motion this low-key but charming comedy-drama about family and finding yourself.

Rather than focus on the festival itself, the film – based on Tiber’s own account of events – looks at the people behind the scenes who made Woodstock happen.

Performances, especially from the supporting cast, are excellent, with Liev Schreiber (recently seen as the villainous Sabretooth in Wolverine) particularly charming as a transvestite ex-marine who teaches Tiber a valuable lesson about life.

Ang Lee makes great use of split-screen shots, capturing both the energy of the festival as well as the cinematic style of the award-winning documentary, Woodstock; and presents one of the most effectively shot acid trips I’ve ever seen on film.

Taking Woodstock is a simple but solid coming of age story, and is utterly charming.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Save the VCA!

One of Australia's most important cultural institutions is under major threat. I've talked about it a lot already on 3RRR but it suddenly occurs to me that I haven't written about it yet on this here blog. Bloody remiss of me.

There's gonna be a big rally tomorrow to help save the Victorian College of the Arts from Melbourne Uni's new, economic rationalist educational model (a new model which has already axed the VCA's puppetry and musical theatre courses. What next?) under which academic breadth will be considered to be more important than hands-on expert teaching. Who was it who said we don't need dancers who can write essays, we need dancers who can dance?

Rally tomorrow at the VCA at 10am and march on Parliament at 11am. Details here. See you there.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Good things come in Sevens

I've been spoiled for entertainment over the last week.

Last Friday was the opening night The Ballad of Backbone Joe, the latest but all-to-briefly showing production by The Suitcase Royale at the Arts House Meat Market, North Melbourne.

A clever combination of film noir and Fisher's Ghost, it was another fine example of the Suitcase boys' 'junkyard theatre' aesthetic, and a wonderfully entertaining show, though to my mind it felt a little undercooked - something I also felt about their Chronicles of a Sleepless Moon when I saw its first incarnation at the 2006 Next Wave Festival, mind you.

Given time, and fine-tuning, I have no doubts Backbone Joe - a rib-tickling tale of boxing and butchery - will reach similar heights of success. It already has the same quotient of unhinged tomfoolery!

On Monday night I saw a preview of the new Australian film by director Jonathan Auf Der Heide, Van Diemen's Land, a beautifully rendered story about terrible events inspired by the confessions of Irish-born convict and cannibal Alexander Pearce. I'll be reviewing the film in more detail in the coming days, but suffice to say I highly recommend it, as does fellow blogger Alison Croggon, whose thoughts about it you can read here.

Yesterday I saw another film, the new feature from director Ang Lee, Finding Woodstock, a gentle comedy about the people behind the scenes of 1969's muddy memorial to peace, love and live music. Again, I'll review it in more detail in the coming days, and again again, I very much liked it - certainly much more than I expected to!

Tonight, I saw TRACES, only the second work from Canadian circus company Les 7 Doigts De La Main (The 7 Fingers), and an absolute gem. It's showing in Melbourne at the Comedy Theatre until August 29, and I highly recommend you check it out.

The last Canadian circus company I saw left me with a bad taste in my mouth, and yes, I'm talking about Cirque du Soleil and their show Dralion, which struck me as pompous, decadent, overblown and soulless.

The 7 Fingers are altogether different. The five young performers in TRACES are vibrant, exuberant, sexy and audacious; and their show is an exciting blend of contemporary circus arts, street skills, parkour and passion, set to a thumping soundtrack ranging from rock to drum'n'bass, including tracks by Vast, Radiohead and Nitin Sawhney.

In a makeshift shelter, five young people shelter from an impending catastrophe, defying the oncoming storm by fighting, loving and living life to the full. Inventive video and projection work enrich the versatile quintet's performances, which range from an exhilarating sequence based around two Chinese Poles and a bravura teeterboard act, to piano playing, hoop diving, a memorable skateboarding sequence seemingly inspired by Esther Williams' synchronised swimming routines, and a visceral and exciting German Wheel routine set to an folk-punk soundtrack (something akin to Dropkick Murphys, though it was probably a different band of a similar ilk).

Boasting a playfully 21st century approach to sexuality and an enviable physicality, The 7 Fingers' TRACES is one of the most satisfying and exciting circus shows it's ever been my pleasure to witness. Bravo!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Listen Up!

2009 MIFF Diary Part 13

DEAD SNOW
(Dir. Tommy Wirkola, 2008)

Screening as part of the festival’s ‘Night Shift’ program, the Norwegian horror-comedy Død Snø (Dead Snow) is light on thrills and heavy on laughs; a bloody romp involving horny medical students, an isolated cottage, and a battalion of Nazi zombies.

The film opens with Sara (Ane Dahl Torp) chased by shadowy pursuers through a twilight of snow and skeletal branches, to the accompaniment of Edvard Grieg’s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’; one of several knowing winks made in the audience’s direction throughout the film.

The joking tone is maintained a few minutes later, when one of a small group of holidaying medical students (who are traipsing through the wilderness intent on rendezvousing with Sara at her chalet) discovers that their group has no mobile phone coverage. “How many films start with a group of friends at a cabin with no cell phones?” he wonders aloud; an obvious reference to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy and other films of that ilk.

Sadly, director Tommy Wirkola lacks Raimi’s inventive flair and black humour, for what follows is an often-laboured pastiche of horror film tropes, complete with an eccentric loner (who I immediately dubbed ‘Mr. Exposition’) whose dire warnings about “an evil presence” go unheeded by the youngsters, who are more intent on playing Twister than searching for their missing friend.

The first half of the film takes its time in setting the scene, but never really follows through on its clearly flagged plot elements; and its simply-sketched characters are all equally disposable. However, once the Nazi zombies claw their way out of the snow, led by the cadaverous Colonel Herzog (Örjan Gamst) in the second half, the pace picks up nicely.

Inventive deaths, fun with entrails and buckets of blood galore ensure that gore hounds will get a kick from Dead Snow, although its muddled plot involving gold and vengeful zombies may leave them scratching their heads in bemusement.

Rating: Three stars


BRAN NUE DAE
(Dir. Rachel Perkins, 2009)

Based on the popular stage musical by Jimmy Chi, Rachel Perkins’ effervescent and charming Indigenous road movie is the feel-good Australian film of the year.

Set in 1967, Bran Nue Dae stars Rocky McKenzie as Willie, an Indigenous teenager sent away from his home in Broome to a Clontarf mission school, to study under the tutelage of Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush). But Willie’s heart lies with his childhood sweetheart Rosie (Australian Idol 2006 runner-up Jessica Mauboy) and before long he has fled the school and is making his way back up the coast in the company of a charming rogue named Uncle Tadpole (an exceptional performance by the charismatic Ernie Dingo) and two hapless hippies, Annie (Missy Higgins) and Wolfgang (Tom Budge).

Performances are excellent throughout, especially country/soul singer Dan Sultan as Willie’s swaggering rival Lester, and Deborah Mailman as the lascivious Kimberly woman Roxanne; while the musical numbers –especially the toe-tapping “There is nothing I would be, than to be an Aborigine” – had the closing night MIFF audience breaking out in spontaneous applause.

Perkins directs the film with a steady hand, perfectly balancing the heady mix of romance, musical numbers and broad comedy; and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie brings the rich colours of the Australian landscape to full and vivid life.

While its story is relatively slight, Bran Nue Dae is a joyful and uplifting cinematic experience; a bright and beautiful story about love, hope and belonging.

Rating: Four stars


NECESSARY GAMES(Dir. Sophie Hyde, 2009)

This short Australian film created in collaboration with Adelaide’s Restless Dance Theatre (which works with young dancers with intellectual disabilities) is a triptych of dance works created specifically for the screen; and features moments of such sublime beauty that I found myself wiping away tears several times throughout the screening.

The three films were directed by Sophie Hyde, in collaboration with three different choreographers who have all worked with Restless in the past. Collectively, the films which make up Necessary GamesMoths (co-directed and choreographed by Paul Zivkovich), Sixteen (co-directed and choreographed by Kat Worth) and Necessity (co-directed and choreographed by Tuula Roppola) – explore our human need to connect.

Beautiful cinematography, haunting music, and choreography that is simultaneously muscular and tender, intimate and dramatic, combine to craft a memorable and remarkable filmic experience.
Rating: Four and a half stars


THE LIBERTY OF NORTON FOLGATE
(Dir. Julian Temple, 2009)

Released in May this year, The Liberty of Norton Folgate is the ninth studio album by British band Madness (best known for their ska-inspired 1980s pop songs, ‘House of Fun’ and ‘Baggy Trousers’); a sophisticated concept album exploring the rich history and personalities of London town.

This spectacular concert film by Julian Temple (The Filth and the Fury, Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten) not only captures the album performed live in its entirety at the Hackney Empire Theatre, but also documents the history explored in its songs through a richly layered series of projections, images and archival footage.

The presence of numerous music hall performers on and off stage, and direct-to-camera monologues about such London luminaries as Jack the Ripper and Karl Marx between songs by band members Suggs and Carl, further enrich the film.

Tales of a city born in mud and blood; of the diabolical Spring-Heeled Jack who once haunted the city’s narrow streets; and of the waves of Irish, Jewish, Caribbean and Asian immigrants whose legacies have enriched London culturally – and whose music is reflected in Madness’s songs – combine in this richly evocative visual and musical tapestry to create a concert film like no other.

Rating: Three and a half stars


BRENDAN AND THE SECRET OF KELLS
(Dir. Tomm Moore, 2009)

My final film at MIFF was this delightful animated fantasy about the power of imagination and the creation of the world’s most famous illuminated manuscript, The Book of Kells.

Brendan (voiced by young actor Evan McGuire) is an orphan raised by monks in the Monastery of Kells, ruled over by Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson). The Abbot is obsessed with building a vast wall to protect the monastery’s inhabitants from marauding Vikings; but Brendan is more interested in spending time in the monastery’s scriptorium, in the company of Brother Aidan (Mick Lally), a newly arrived monk fleeing the sacked isle of Iona, and carrying with him an illuminated Bible so beautiful it is said to blind heretics who look upon it.

To help Brother Aidan make the ink he needs to work upon the unfinished manuscript, Brendan ventures into the forbidden forest beyond the monastery walls, where he encounters ferocious wolves, a dark god, and the forest sprite Aisling (Christen Mooney), whom he soon befriends. But not even Aisling’s magic can save Kells from an approaching Viking horde…

An inspired visual feast from Irish animator Tomm Moore, the film’s look is inspired by the artwork of The Book of Kells itself, an intricate illuminated Bible in Latin, transcribed by Celtic monks circa 800 AD. Drawing on the book’s Celtic knot-work, fearsome beasts and extremely stylized imagery, Moore and his team of animators have crafted a beautiful looking film in which every frame is a work of art. Even the attack on the monastery by bloodthirsty Norsemen is visually stunning, with gouts of flame and clouds of smoke snaking hypnotically across the screen, while the Vikings themselves are truly terrifying, an implacable force, all horns and swords and flaming eyes that had the child seated in front of me whimpering in terror.

The story’s fantasy elements never overshadow the focus on young Brendan and his personal quest to discover his own hidden talents; and while the story is sparse, it unfolds at a perfect pace. A rich, rewarding and vivid film and a triumph of animation.

Rating: Four stars