Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Review: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader


Based on the best-selling children’s fantasy novel by CS Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the third film in the Chronicles of Narnia series, and a none-too-subtle Christian allegory about the quest for a spiritual life.

As in the first two films (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian), the film’s protagonists are children from our world – specifically England during World War II – who find themselves drawn into the magical world of Narnia, where animals talk and mythological creatures such as dragons and fauns coexist with human beings.

In this latest installment of the franchise, filmed in Queensland, Edmund Pevensie (Skandar Keynes) and his younger sister Lucy (Georgie Henley), along with their odious cousin Eustace Scrubb (Will Poulter), are swallowed by a painting and transported back to Narnia, only to find themselves floundering in the Great Eastern Ocean, far from land.

Rescued from drowning by King Caspian (Ben Barnes, returning to the role he first played in 2008’s Prince Caspian) and a warrior mouse named Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg, taking over from Eddie Izzard, who voiced the character in the previous film) the children are taken aboard Caspian’s ship, the dragon-prowed Dawn Treader, on a quest to uncover the fates of the seven lost Lords of Telmar, the exiled best friends of Caspian’s murdered father.

As the companions sail into ever further into the unknown east, they must overcome personal temptations, explore mysterious islands, and fight dreadful foes before they can be reunited with their friend and protector, the great lion, Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson).

Whereas the first film of the franchise was all-too-faithful to the book it was based upon, giving the cinematic version of the story no room to breathe, and the second film took considerably more creative liberties with the text, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader sits somewhere between the two. Unfortunately, despite rearranging elements of the story to suit the storytelling conventions of cinema, screenplay writers Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely and Michael Petroni, together with director Michael Apted (the Seven Up! series) have failed to create an engaging or satisfying film.

Fans of previous entries in the franchise will question such elements as the loss of Caspian’s Spanish accent, which has vanished completely, while film buffs will question the necessity of much of the film’s awkward and laboured dialogue (which relies heavily on clichés, such as the line uttered by the wizard, Coriakin (Bille Brown): “To fight the darkness out there, you must first defeat the darkness within.”).

Action scenes are brief and generally unsatisfying, save for a dramatic battle with a sea serpent late in the film, while overall the film feels episodic, like a bad road movie – hardly surprising given the plot’s reliance on voyaging from island to island in search of the lost lords and their magic swords.

The CGI is often poor – typified by a distinctly unconvincing sea nymph, or nereid – and not even the appearance of a dragon can lift the film’s generally flat and stilted feel; while its post-production conversion to 3D adds nothing to the story.

One of the few pleasures of watching The Voyage of the Dawn Treader comes from spotting various Australian actors playing supporting and minor roles, including the aforementioned Brown as well as Bruce Spence, Roy Billing, Terry Norris, and most prominently Gary Sweet as Lord Drinian, the Captain of the Dawn Treader (though his accent, which shifts from Irish to Scottish to English at various points in the film, distracts from his performance).

Performances from the young leads, especially Georgie Henley as Lucy Pevensie, have improved dramatically since The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, although Will Poulter’s Eustace Scrubb is perhaps a bit too unlikeable; and to the film's credit it is well-paced and never drags, though this seems to have been achieved at the cost of fleshing out some scenes in the journey east.

Finally, as an atheist, I found the film’s heavy-handed approach to its religious subtext more than a little galling. Constant reference is made to the importance of faith; the character’s individual struggles with temptation throughout the film clearly reference the Seven Deadly Sins (well, most of them – there’s no room for lust in a PG-rated fantasy); and the final scene, in which Aslan is directly equated with Christ, was almost too much to bear.

Truly it seems that, in the words of CS Lewis biographer and academic Alan Jacobs, Narnia’s creator has become ‘a pawn in America’s culture wars’.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader opens nationally on Thursday December 2.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Happy 47th birthday, Doctor Who



I can't remember life before Doctor Who.

The iconic British science fiction program, which premiered in the UK on this day, November 23rd in 1963, has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. While there were periods where my love for the program waned (such as the mid-to-late 1980s, after I moved out of home in January 1986 at the age of 17 into a share house with no television, meaning that I missed almost all of the Sixth Doctor and the entire run of Sylvester McCoy's mischievous and manipulative Seventh Doctor; nor did I see the Doctor Who telemovie when it screened on the ABC on July 7, 1996, the day after my 29th birthday) the series - and its mad, time-travelling protagonist in his stolen blue box - has always been close to my heart.

According to my mum, our family accidentally discovered Doctor Who some time in the very early 1970s, when Jon Pertwee was playing the role of the Third Doctor. We were, she tells me, collectively hooked after just one episode, and thereafter it was a Watts family ritual to sit down to dinner at 6pm so that we were ready to watch the Doctor's latest adventure (or the endless repeats of certain episodes the ABC showed with monotonous regularity in the late 70s and early 80s) at 6.30pm, just before the news.

My sister, who is older than my by two years, says she, like me, cannot remember life without the Doctor.

While none of us can pinpoint the exact moment our family became Doctor Who fans, research leads me to believe that my family's accidental discovery of the Doctor - driven, I suspect, by my science fiction loving father, who similarly introduced me to 2001: A Space Odyssey and later the writings of Asimov and Clarke at an early age - may well have been in July 1971, shortly after I had turned four. It was that year that the ABC began to screen the Third Doctor's first adventures (in black and white, as the ABC didn't begin broadcasting in colour until 1975), starting with Pertwee's very first episode, Spearhead From Space.

While I can't remember it, it seems logical to think that the ABC's promotion of a new series of Doctor Who, with a new actor in the title role, would have caught my dad's attention; and once we'd watched the program, sparked my whole family's imagination.

Today, decades later, we all still love Doctor Who. My father died on March 9th 1989, but my mother, my sister, her husband and two children, and most definitely myself still love the program. As I write this, there are small figures of the Third, Tenth and Eleventh Doctors standing on my desk (together with a Cyberman and an even smaller TARDIS), and come Boxing Day I have no doubt that the three generations of my family will be gathered together to watch the new Christmas special, A Christmas Carol.

A time-travelling hero whose brains and non-violent approach to the universe around him will triumph over brawn, no matter whether his opponents are Daleks, Cybermen, Zygons or Sontarans. A clown, a dandy, a bohemian, an alien who can never quite belong to the world around him. A madman in a blue box.

Whoever he is, wherever his adventures in time and space take him, I will never stop loving Doctor Who.

Happy 47th birthday to my favourite Time Lord and to a remarkable, inspiring, entertaining and wonderful television program.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Interviewing Ryan Kwanten (naked)

This is Australian actor Ryan Kwanten, probably best know for getting his kit off in Alan Ball's Southern Gothic vampire series, True Blood:


And so is this:


And this:


That last photo is a publicity still for the new Australian film Red Hill, which opens in cinemas next week. Last Friday I interviewed Ryan Kwanten naked.

As in, I was naked, not him.

The phone interview was scheduled for 4.55pm, so at 4pm I went to bed for a quick power nap, with the alarm set for 4.30pm. And yes, I sleep naked, deal with it.

At 4.25pm I was woken by a phone call from the publicist asking if I can do the interview now. "Umm, give me five minutes," I mumble, half awake. I then proceed to race around my flat grabbing my list of questions, my tape recorder, my phone pick-up microphone etc. There's no time to get dressed before the phone rings.

Consequently, I interviewed Ryan - and Red Hill director Patrick Hughes, who I wasn't expecting to speak with - naked. Ironic, much?

Update: You can read my interview with Ryan here, at Citysearch.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Review: The Animals & Children Took to the Streets


All cities have their slums. In The Animals & Children Took to the Streets, set in a prosperous and cultured city “where art is spelled with a capital R”, the slum’s dark heart is the festering and fetid district around Redherring Street, and in particular, the stinking, sprawling Bayou Mansions.

A cavernous and decaying apartment building where the rooms are so small there’s no room to swing a rat, the Bayou is populated by swarming cockroaches, curtain-twitching perverts, angry swarms of feral children, and the Caretaker – a miserable fellow whose only goal in life is to save up for a one-way ticket out of Redherring Street.

When attractive art therapist Agnes Eames and her daughter Evie move into the Bayou Mansions, the Caretaker suddenly finds himself with a new goal in life – especially when Evie Eames goes missing.

Like poor Evie, the Caretaker is swept up in the piratical plots of Zelda, the leader of a particularly anarchic gang of Redherring Street children, and the counter-plots of the city’s Mayor, whose nefarious plans are intended to quash Zelda's revolution utterly.

British performance troupe 1927 (writer/director Suzanne Andrade, designer/animator Paul Barritt, costume designer/performer Esme Appleton, and composer/performer Lillian Henley) last visited Melbourne in 2008, when the Beckett Theatre played host to the company’s award-winning debut production, the internationally acclaimed Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.

Like their first show, The Animals & Children Took to the Streets is an ingenious and imaginative production featuring white face-painted performers who act out the melodramatic plot in front of digitally animated and interactive backdrops, accompanied by silent-movie inspired piano music played live by Henley.

Unlike Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea however, which was a series of short gothic sketches, this new production sees the company embracing a sustained narrative. While it lags a little in the middle third of the show, the evocative story admirably displays the company’s mordant wit and deliberately stagey performance style, and especially Barritt’s startling constructivist-inspired animations, which in conjunction with the performers' perfect timing and their interaction with the projections, bring Andrade’s outlandish story to vivid and remarkable life.

Continuing the social realist tradition of such science fiction classics as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (released, not so coincidentally, in 1927), The Animals & Children Took to the Streets is a deliberately unsubtle critique of the ever-growing gap between society’s haves and have-nots, and a delightful work of contemporary theatre.

Malthouse Theatre and The British Council present The Animals & Children Took to the Streets

Created and performed by 1927

Beckett Theatre, November 9 – 28, 2010

This review originally appeared on Arts Hub.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Review: BARE WITNESS

A rare collaboration between two of Melbourne's most important creative spaces, Mari Lourey's Bare Witness is a joint presentation by La Mama Theatre and fortyfivedownstairs, in the latter organisation's bunker-like venue beneath Flinders Lane. The space suits the work admirably, for Bare Witness is an expressionistic exploration of the experiences of a diverse group of photojournalists in three different war zones: Bosnia in the early 1990s, Timor Leste in the dark days before its independence from Indonesia, and contemporary Iraq.

The audience's introduction to this blood, developing fluid and adrenaline-soaked world is Australian photographer Dani Hill (Daniela Farinacci), who in a short space of time goes from snapping hats and frocks at Flemington race course to photographing corpses and grieving widows in the Balkans. Years later, Dani looks back through her old photographs, recalling the stories behind the 11 most powerful shots; stories which are then played out for the audience, counting down slowly to the traumatic revelation behind the final, heartbreaking photograph.

A rigorous development process, and detailed research by Lourey, means that the play never feels less than authentic. The script does not flinch away from detailing Dani's development from a naive photographer to a cynical and battle-hardened photojournalist whose success comes at significant personal cost, but nor does it wallow in melodrama. What details there are about the niceties of Dani's profession - such as the ethics of rearranging the elements of a shoot for maximum impact, even when those elements are the freshly killed bodies of young men - are handled intelligently and without fuss, making such concerns part of the story without glossing over them or giving them artificial and jarring emphasis.

Director Nadja Kostich brings an admirable sense of abstraction to Bare Witness, relying as much on the performers' physicality and the impressive skills of the creative team - composer Jethro Woodward, video by Michael Carmody, and lighting designer Emma Valente - as on Lourey's evocative and fragmented script to evoke Dani's turbulent life and war-torn photographs. Imagination, after all, holds more power than a literal image, no matter the horror and heartbreak such an image conveys. Here, the clapping of hands conveys the click of a camera shutter or the firing of a gun, and the few images we do see are Carmody's projections of wolves, running and howling, evoking both the pack mentality of the photojournalists who befriend Dani, and the concept that they are 'lone wolves', driven for whatever reasons to operate on the fringes of society, far from the comforts of friends and family.

Performances are very good - especially Todd McDonald as one of Dani's colleagues, Jacek, and the aforementioned Daniela Farinacci - and Woodward's live score, created from his position at the rear of the theatre, is fantastic. The most outstanding element of the production to my mind, however, was Emma Valente's remarkable and very physical lighting design, which saw her constantly crawling onto and crossing the stage in order to position fluorescent lights or set bulbs swinging in order to enhance the mood and tone of a scene.

Overall, Bare Witness is one of the most memorable independent theatre productions I have seen this year. That said, it is not perfect. Its reliance on the abstract and the physical distances the audience from the story it tells, so that while I was emotionally engaged by its opening and closing scenes, during the middle third of the play the cumulative effect of the production and the fragmented poetry of the script served to render me an observer, watching Dani's descent into a personal hell but never feeling any sense of her anguish at an emotional level.

That criticism aside it is otherwise an excellent production, and highly recommended.

BARE WITNESS by Mari Lourey, directed by Nadja Kostich, dramaturgy by Michael Carmody, Nadja Kostich & Julian Meyrick.

Composer/musician Jethro Woodward, set and costumes Marg Howell, video Michael Carmody, lighting Emma Valente.

Performed by Isaac Drandic, Daniela Farinacci, Adam McConvell, Todd MacDonald and Maria Theodorakis.

A La Mama Theatre presentation at fortyfivedownstairs. Now showing until Sunday 26th September.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Review: The Lost Story of the Magdalen Asylum

An evocative though not entirely successful site-specific work by Melbourne company Peepshow Inc, The Lost Story of the Magdalen Asylum draws on the history and atmosphere of the Abbotsford Convent, where Peepshow have been based since 2005, to tell a story of hope, deprivation, and religious devotion.

Like the company’s earlier work, The Mysteries of the Convent, this new production is a meticulously researched and historically accurate rendering of the lives of real people: nuns, prostitutes, penitents and others, whose stories have been woven into a theatrical presentation incorporating a range of disciplines. Puppetry plays a key role in a number of scenes, acrobatic skills are also called into play, while lighting and sound design are judiciously employed to enrich the performances of the two players, Teresa Blake and Carole Patullo.

The Lost Story of the Magdalen Asylum is set in a portion of the former Convent of the Good Shepherd that – unlike other areas of the precinct, which now house studios, galleries, and even a bakery – has not previously been opened up to the public. It is here, in the decrepit dormitories of the Magdalen Asylum, which once housed orphans, wards of the State and girls considered to be in ‘moral danger’, as well as the former industrial laundries where they toiled each day, that Peepshow has chosen to stage their new production.

The echoing halls of the Asylum may have been cleared of decades of pigeon droppings – not to mention cleared as a temporary performance space by WorkSafe inspectors – but its echoing halls are still pungent with a palpable sense of decay and misery which adds significantly to the production as it unfolds.

The opening scenes swiftly and effectively introduce the audience – limited to a maximum of 25 people at a time – to the setting and stories of the Asylum by focusing on the experiences of one Rose Lawler (1875 – 1926), a former Convent resident. We see her trudge towards the Convent doors in the rain, carrying a suitcase from which the narrator’s voice and judicious sound effects play.

In the next scene, and in another room, the scale of the story changes: Rose is a doll trudging up a slope made of heaped dirt, and the Asylum is a birdcage, in which Rose is soon imprisoned. It’s a poignant and beautiful image, heartbreaking in its simplicity, and more than effectively conveying the emotional truths of Rose’s story.

A similarly effective piece of stagecraft is employed in this scene to introduce the four Irish nuns who founded the Convent of the Good Shepherd, and so effective is it that I will say no more about it, so as to avoid diluting its impact for future audiences.

Unfortunately, from this point on, as the audience were awkwardly herded out into a courtyard, and thence upstairs through a progressive series of rooms and scenes, The Lost Story of the Magdalen Asylum began to lose its impact. It may have been opening night nerves, but the performers seemed uneasy in or unused to their multiple roles, an impression that was not helped by the occasional awkward and clunky lines of dialogue they were forced to spout. A scene presenting the theories of Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso about ‘depraved women’ was effectively staged, but its comedic tone seemed at odds with the overall atmosphere of the production; while the final scene, performed outside, beneath the spreading branches of the Separation Oak (planted circa 1850 to mark the separation of Victoria from the colony of NSW) seemed entirely extraneous.

History buffs are sure to enjoy The Lost Story of the Magdalen Asylum, and with time, and additional polishing, it may yet develop into an engaging work; as it currently stands the work fails to sustain the drama and emotion of its opening moments throughout, save for one or two startling and moving moments of stagecraft in the production’s penultimate scene.

Peepshow Inc presents The Lost Story of the Magdalen Asylum at Abbotsford Convent, September 11 – October 2

Director: Melinda Hetzel

Writer/Dramaturg: Kylie Trounson

Performers: Teresa Blake & Carole Patullo

Composition: Teresa Blake & & Steph O’Hara

Sound Design: Steph O’Hara

Set/Costume Design: Dayna Morrissey

Lighting Design: Danny Pettingill

www.peepshowinc.com

Melbourne Fringe Festival, September 22 – October 10

www.melbournefringe.com.au

This review originally appeared at www.artshub.com.au

Monday, August 30, 2010

Review: Tomorrow, When the War Began

First published in 1993, teacher turned author John Marsden’s YA-adventure novel Tomorrow, When the War Began was very much the Harry Potter of its day; an international publishing success story that sold millions of copies world-wide, spawning six sequels and a spin-off trilogy in the process.

Immensely popular among teenage readers, any adaptation of the book must naturally tread carefully in order to avoid alienating its legion of loyal fans, but screenwriter turned director Stuart Beattie (30 Days of Night, Pirates of the Caribbean, Australia) has done a generally sterling job in bringing Marsden’s much-loved novel to the screen.

Set in and around the small country town of Wirrawee (population 3871), the film follows the adventures of a suspiciously photogenic group of teenagers led by the resourceful Ellie Linton (Caitlin Stasey, Neighbours) as they head bush for a camping trip; coincidentally on the same weekend that Australia is invaded by a brutal occupying army. While their families are rounded up and imprisoned at the Wirrawee showgrounds, the teenagers – Greek bad boy Homer (Deniz Akdeniz), cocky jock Kevin (Lincoln Lewis), teen beauty queen Fiona (Phoebe Tonkin), reserved and studious Vietnamese-Australian Lee (Chris Pang) and the quietly devout Robyn (Ashleigh Cummings) spend an idyllic few days flirting in the remote bush.

When they emerge into a dramatically transformed world where foreign soldiers patrol the familiar streets of Wirrawee, they are quickly forced to grow up, and in a remarkably short space of time transform into a highly effective guerilla army who take the fight to the invaders, with drastic and dramatic consequences.

The film opens with Ellie recording the group’s experiences direct to camera via digital video – a logical updating of the book’s first person narrative, which saw Ellie writing down her story – though later sequences of voice-over narration are less successful, and occasionally intrusive. Thereafter we are quickly – and sometimes clumsily – introduced to the main characters, who at first seem little more than broadly-sketched stereotypes, but who gain unexpected depth and definition as the film unfolds.

Performances are uniformly strong, though Rachel Hurd-Wood is a trifle wooden as Ellie’s best friend Corrie, and Andy Ryan struggles as the stoner caricature, Chris. Conversely, Ashleigh Cummings as Robyn brings a steely resolve to her devoutly Christian character, admirably conveying the conflicted nature of someone who steadfastly believes in the Biblical commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ but who also finds herself living in the midst of a war.

Ben Notts’ lush cinematography occasionally veers into tourism territory as the camera swoops over the rugged terrain of the Blue Mountains, where the film was shot, but coupled with Marcus D’Arcy’s crisp editing, admirably captures the spectacle of Beattie’s screenplay, in which muted periods of character development alternate with tense action sequences.

A generally faithful adaptation of Marsden’s book, the film stamps its own mark on the story by playing up the violence which the novel generally avoided. It also unfortunately identifies the invading army, whose origins went unidentified in the original novel.

Beattie tries to avoid playing the race card by presenting the invaders as a coalition of nameless Asian nations, and while this tactic avoids demonising a specific country, it unfortunately also encourages alert viewers to consider the film as a contemporary expression of Australia’s deep-rooted xenophobia. Cleverly, Beattie softens the blow by acknowledging that this isn’t the first time Australia has been invaded, but the notion of an ‘Asian invasion’ is nonetheless an uncomfortable subtext of the film that must be acknowledged in any honest review.

Save for the occasional awkward slab of dialogue the script is solid, and the pacing is near-perfect once the film really gets underway. A clever nod to the challenges of adapting a much-loved book to the screen will entertain the more cynical viewer, while young audiences are sure to be entertained by the combination of an attractive cast and numerous spectacular set-pieces, including a dramatic rescue and subsequent car chase through the streets of Wirrawee.

Other flaws include a moment or two of poor CGI and an occasionally intrusive soundtrack, but for the most part Tomorrow When the War Began is a remarkably entertaining and genuinely exciting movie, rich with dramatic tension and truly spectacular. It deserves to do well at the box office both locally and internationally.

Tomorrow, When the War Began opens nationally on Thursday September 2.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

MIFF 2010: Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

The outspoken entertainer Ian Dury was a remarkable and memorable figure on the British music scene; a proto-punk who came to fame in the era of The Sex Pistols and The Damned, and who was quick to lash out at anyone foolish enough to patronise or pity him.

Stricken by polio as a child, he walked with difficulty, with the aid of a cane and callipers, but was never one to let his disability prevent him from living a rich and full life – and a somewhat decadent, selfish and self-obsessed life, if this film is to be believed.

Together with his band The Blockheads, Dury had several hit songs in the UK music charts in the late 1970s and early 1980s, including the 1979 number one, ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’, as well as the singles ‘Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3’, ‘I Wanna Be Straight’, and the anthemic ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll’, which was banned by the BBC upon its release in 1977. Many such songs feature on the soundtrack of Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, performed by Andy Serkis, who plays Dury, together with the original members of The Blockheads.

This frenetic film by first-time feature director Mat Whitecross avoids the traditional narrative pitfalls of the biopic genre, which at their worst tend to be a limply ordered progression of key events in the subject’s life from birth through to death; but nonetheless it fails to completely satisfy, primarily due to flaws in the screenplay by Paul Viragh, which keeps any sense of emotional connection with the story at arm’s length until the final, melodramatic act.

Opening with a shot of Dury addressing an empty theatre – a scene that instantly reminded this reviewer of the recent British film Bronson, a fevered biopic about the most violent prisoner in the UK penal system – Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll uses animation, flashbacks, live performances, dream sequences and first person narratives by Dury to tell the story of the man’s ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ rise from sickly child to full-blown rock star.

The supporting cast put in strong performances, especially Olivia Williams as Betty, Dury’s first wife, who gives birth while her husband’s first band, Kilburn and the High Roads, are rehearsing and arguing downstairs; and Naomie Harris as Denise, Dury’s much put-upon younger lover. Young Bill Milner as Dury’s teenaged son, Baxter, also gives an astonishingly accomplished and complex performance.

Williams and Harris in particular excel with their roles, bringing warmth and depth to their somewhat two-dimensional characters. They are ably supported by the likes of Noel Clarke, Arthur Darvill, Ray Winstone (as Dury’s distant but loving father) and Toby Jones as a callous orderly who sparked the young Dury’s earliest rebellions – one of several moments in the film offering pop psychological explanations for Dury’s wild and indulgent lifestyle.

The movie’s energy and good humour are undeniable, and its production design vivid and memorable, but it never really gets beneath the surface to give a convincing depiction of Dury’s complex personality, being more content to observe rather than analyse. Nonetheless, thanks to a magnificent performance by Serkis and the vivid, expressionistic and anarchic style in which Dury’s story is told, it very much entertains.

Rating: Three and a half stars

MIFF 2010: The General

While this year’s MIFF may have lacked the breadth of international guests seen in previous years, the festival’s program of special events was certainly impressive, including as it did everything from drive-in movie nights at Docklands, a 50th anniversary screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (with a live score performed by the Bates Motel Orchestra) and this very special screening of Buster Keaton’s 1927 classic, The General.

Screened at the Melbourne Recital Centre, and featuring the world premiere of a new score performed live by five-piece band The Blue Grassy Knoll, The General is Keaton’s most ambitious film: a 79 minute epic set in the American Civil War and featuring everything a film buff could ask for, including inventive camera work, vividly realised set pieces, dramatic chases, romance, explosions and some truly spectacular stunts.

The plot sees Keaton’s typically deadpan train driver, Johnny Gray, rejected by his girlfriend Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) when she mistakenly believes him a coward who will not enlist in the Confederate army. A year later, Annabelle is accidentally kidnapped by a group of Union spies led by Captain Anderson (Glen Cavender) when they steal the other great love of Johnny’s life, his steam locomotive, The General. When Johnny commandeers another train and sets out after them, a vividly staged chase ensues, featuring a carefully choreographed and gradually escalating series of train-based stunts that leave even contemporary audiences gobsmacked and amazed.

Despite its spectacular scale and vivid scenes, The General was a flop upon its initial release, with trade journal Variety calling it ‘far from funny’. Today it is considered a classic of the silent era, praised by leading critics and filmmakers alike for its audacity, inventiveness and brio. Indeed, the late Orson Welles said of The General that it was the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made.

Friday night’s screening of this silent movie classic was made all the more entertaining by The Blue Grassy Knoll’s new score: a playful composition that highlighted the film’s comic elements and enriched every moment, using such instruments as banjo, double bass, cello, drums, piano accordion and guitar to evoke everything from explosions and thunderstorms to whistling bullets and tender conversations.

Displaying impeccable timing and musical flare, the quintet’s accomplished musical dexterity and striking original compositions added immensely to this already remarkable viewing experience, ensuring that The General remains a vibrant, vital and exciting film 83 years after its original cinematic release.

Film rating: Four stars

Original score: Four and a half stars

MIFF 2010: The Myth of the American Sleepover

In the 19th Century the world’s population was divided up into adults and children, but with the dawning of the 20th Century a new social strata began to develop, fuelled by novels such as Booth Tarkington’s Seventeen (published in 1916) and films such as 1937’s A Family Affair (starring a 17 year old Mickey Rooney). Together with the social changes wrought by the availability of the automobile and increased retention rates in secondary schools, these expressions of popular culture helped give birth to a gangly new creature: the American teenager.

By the 1950s the teen was firmly ensconced in popular culture, with films such as The Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause recognising teenagers as a discrete, separate age group with their own rituals, rights and demands, but also acknowledging their parents’ concerns around issues such as juvenile delinquency and adolescent rebellion.

Parents are nowhere to be seen in David Robert Mitchell’s The Myth of the American Sleepover, a gently paced tale of teenage discovery that’s set, like American Graffiti and the more recent Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, over an eventful, single, summer night.

There are no mobile phones, iPods and computers evident in Mitchell’s debut feature; it’s as if he was trying to make a film set anywhere and any-when; and instead of Larry Clark and Catherine Hardwicke style melodrama, Mitchell has crafted a deliberately anti-dramatic demythologising of the clichés and tropes of Hollywood’s long history of teenage dramas.

Four main characters dominate the ensemble cast: Maggie (Claire Soma), a wilfully independent girl who rejects her compatriots’ slumber party for more adult pleasures; horny heartthrob Rob (Marlon Morton) who cruises the town in hope of meeting up with the mysterious blonde girl he met by chance in the supermarket, and whose obsession blinds him to the fact that his best friend Marcus (Wyatt McCallum) is clearly in love with him; Claudia (Amanda Bauer), the new girl in town, whose presence disrupts her school’s carefully structured pecking order; and the marginally older Scott (Brett Jacobsen), a college student nursing a recently broken heart, who has returned to his home town to heal, and perhaps find new love.

Naturalistic in tone, and featuring a strongly performing non-professional cast, the film suffers at times from some poorly lit scenes and mumbled, inarticulate dialogue. None of the characters are especially well drawn, making it difficult to care about them, and Mitchell is at such pains to avoid and subvert the clichés of traditional teenage movies that he drains any real sense of drama out of his story.

The winner of the Special Jury Prize for Best Ensemble Cast from the SXSW Narrative Feature jury, The Myth of the American Sleepover clearly resonates with some viewers, who find its slight nature charming and its simplistic characters subtle. I found it meandering, stilted, and quite frankly, a little dull. Perhaps its quintessentially American story simply fails to translate for this Australian viewer?

Rating: Two and a half stars

Sunday, August 08, 2010

More MIFF 2010: BOY

Screening as part of the festival’s Next Gen program of ‘mature, intelligent cinema chosen for the young and the young-at-heart,’ Taika Waititi’s latest feature, Boy is a delightful, engaging and thoroughly charming coming-of-age story about an 11-year-old Maori boy whose heroes are his absent father and pop star Michael Jackson.

When his dad – who Boy imagines as a rugby captain, deep sea diver and war hero – arrives home unexpectedly after spending the last seven years in jail, our young hero is forced to confront the truth about the man he thought he knew and must face the future without the hero he’d been hoping for.


Set in 1984 on the East Coast of New Zealand, and beautifully evoking both period and sense of place, at its heart Boy
is a story about families and the nature of love, though it begins as a comedy, and a very funny comedy at that thanks to Waititi’s superb ear for dialogue and strong performances throughout.

Childhood flights of fantasy are brought to life through simple animations to illustrate the interior life of Boy’s younger brother, Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu), and the film perfectly captures perfectly the simple joys of childhood, from the pain of a first crush to the simple joy of sparklers.

The arrival of Boy’s father, Alamein (played by Waititi himself) brings a darker note to the story, for rather than a heroic character, Alamein is deeply flawed: a petty criminal and immature drunkard who is more of a child than either of his sons. The film never loses its comedic edge thanks to the clowning of Alamein and his two feckless mates, and Waititi ensures that Alamein, despite his selfishness and stupidity, is nonetheless still a sympathetic character. Flashbacks to the death of Boy’s mother ensure that the unfolding story, and the development of Alamein’s character are both poignant and profound.

As Boy, James Rolleston is a revelation, bringing charm and cheekiness to the screen in equal measure; and the narrative unfolds beautifully, without lurching too far into sentimentality or contrived comedy despite the many twists and turns it takes.

Boy – which expands on the themes of Waititi’s Oscar-nominated short film Two Cars One Night – is a pitch-perfect rendering of a child’s world that never shies away from harsh truths despite being firmly grounded in a hopeful world of joy and imagination. An absolute charmer from start to finish, it opens in general release on August 26, and comes highly recommended.

Vist the film's website here: www.boythemovie.co.nz

Friday, August 06, 2010

More MIFF 2010: ACCELERATOR ONE

ACCELERATOR (Part One)

The Melbourne International Film Festival’s Accelerator initiative is an annual professional development program for emerging filmmakers; an immersive environment providing the invited participants with access to exclusive workshops, seminars and networking opportunities.

The Accelerator program also features two MIFF screenings, in which the short films of the current crop of Accelerator participants are screened to an appreciative audience composed of cast and crew members, industry peers, and the general public.

These screenings are always one of my personal highlights at MIFF, providing an insight into the current state of play of the industry and a look at the early works of (theoretically) notable filmmakers of the future. Unfortunately I only made it to one Accelerator screening this year, but it was definitely a rewarding experience.

PINION

A haunting period piece written, directed and produced by VCA student Asuka Sylvie, and focussing on Lloyd, a young boy suffering from a mysterious ailment whose family have shipped him off to a remote medical facility (Barwon Park, an imposing, 42-room bluestone mansion near Winchelsea that was completed in 1871 and is managed by the National Trust). The existence of a graveyard on the house’s grounds suggests that not all the patients admitted to the clinic leave. This short drama’s gothic tone and mysterious storyline were unfortunately undercut by a title and script which telegraphed the mystery far too soon, and by some poor CGI at the conclusion.

THE MYSTERY OF FLYING KICKS

Director Matthew Bate’s cut and paste style-documentary about the tantalising presence of sneakers hanging from the powerlines of seemingly every major city in the world, crowd-sourced its content to great effect. Interviews and footage provided by contributors from around the globe combined in a witty collage of words and images that posed questions about art, culture, crime and philosophy. Visually and aurally striking, and extremely entertaining: a well-deserved winner of the festival’s award for Best Documentary Short Film.

FATSO

From screenplay writer and director Irina Goundortseva comes this wordless, bittersweet comedy about an overweight lift attendant looking for companionship in all the wrong places. Though charming, the brief story doesn’t really go anywhere: it feels more like an opening chapter in a larger story rather than a self-contained piece of cinema. Nonetheless, the luminous cinematography and stylish direction ensured that I enjoyed the ride.

MANUREWA

If Robert Altman were to shoot a film based on the real life shooting of a bottle shop attendant in Manurewa, one of the southernmost suburbs of Auckland, New Zealand, it probably wouldn’t be too far removed from this short, tense drama by director Sam Peacocke. As the film unfolds we are introduced to a diverse cast of characters, including a young mother worshipping at a Sikh temple, whose husband is one of two Indian brothers working in Manurewa’s bottle shop; a Maori teenager, his violent older brother and his brother’s friends; two ambos; two police officers; and a group of bored young Maori women. Over 19 minutes their paths slowly cross, to shocking effect. While not especially original, there is real power to this film, thanks in part to its superb cinematography, naturalistic performances, taut editing and accomplished direction.

OUT IN THAT DEEP BLUE SEA

This short drama by Canadian writer/director Kazik Radwanski is a claustrophobic, composite look at the malcontented life of a middle-aged real estate agent. Extreme close ups give a sense of the choking mundanity of the subject’s life, but isolation and despair are not enough to make a memorable film, and despite its technical prowess, Out in the Deep Blue Sea left me largely unengaged.

FRANSWA SHARL

My favourite film of this package, writer/director Hannah Hilliard’s colourful coming of age story generated real and remarkable tension in telling the story of 12 year old Greg Logan’s (Callan McAuliffe) struggle to win his overly competitive father’s affection and support. Set on a family holiday in Fiji in 1980, this witty ‘coming out’ drama won the MIFF’s Erwin Rado Award for Best Australian Short Film, and deservedly so. Rarely has drag ever been as entertaining!

DEEPER THAN YESTERDAY

The final film of this first Accelerator package was former VCA student Ariel Kleiman’s Russian submarine drama, Deeper Than Yesterday, which has already screened at Cannes this year as well as been nominated for an AFI award; so it was eagerly anticipated by many in the audience – though apparently not whoever was looking after the house lights, which were briefly turned on – and thankfully off again – before the film started.

Filmed on and in a privately owned, decommissioned submarine docked near Hastings VIC, the film focuses on a group of Russian submariners who have been submerged for three months, and whose sanity and humanity is slowly ebbing away. Its combination of claustrophobia, violence and misogyny made for uncomfortable viewing, but despite its technical prowess, dramatically I found the film less than compelling – an impression compounded by continuity errors which saw the deck of the submarine bone dry in a scene set only moments after it had supposedly resurfaced.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

MIFF 2010: DREAMLAND

Australian director Ivan Sen first came to prominence with his 2002 road movie about two Indigenous teenage runaways, Beneath Clouds. A contemplative, episodic drama, there are distinct echoes of that film’s style in Sen’s new feature, the moody tone poem, Dreamland.

A low budget black and white feature filmed in the US state of Nevada, Dreamland stars Daniel Roberts (Underbelly: The Golden Mile) as Dan Freeman, an obsessive UFO hunter roaming the desert around the legendary Area 51, a top secret US military base rumoured to house the remains of an alien spacecraft that crashed near Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. Nicknamed ‘Dreamland’, the base’s official purpose is the development and testing of experimental aircraft and weapons systems.

Dwarfed by the rugged mountains, driving endless down the so-called ‘Extra Terrestrial Highway’, Dan seems almost hypnotised by his quest for the truth about alien life. Not even the unexpected appearance of his wife April (Tasma Walton, City Homicide) can drag him away from the desert back to his former life – but such is the nature of the film that even April may be an illusion; the embodiment of Dan’s dreams or a riddle from his past.

For Dan’s dreams have a very solid presence in the film, in the form of footage of astronauts and space missions intercut into the modern-day footage alongside quotes from Giordano Bruno (an early astronomer executed by the Spanish Inquisition in 1600 after proposing that our sun was just another star) and former US President Harry Truman.

Written, directed, shot and edited by Sen, Dreamland is nothing like the standard dramatic features with their three act story arcs that screen at your local multiplex. Virtually silent save for fragments of radio broadcasts, ambient noise and Sen’s evocative steel guitar and cello-based score, it is more a contemplative work of video art than a traditional film; as much a meditation on humanity’s place in the world as it is about Freeman’s quest for the truth.

Some audiences will no doubt find Dreamland to be a frustrating, vague exercise in self-indulgence. I found it an enthralling, almost hallucinatory experience, with its breathtaking time-lapse landscape photography reminiscent at times of Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, and Daniel Roberts’ intensely focussed performance ripe with possibility. My only real complaint is that I felt the running time could have been trimmed back by 10 - 15 minutes without impacting on the film overall, but that's a small qualm in light of what is otherwise a bold and beautiful film that gently but firmly rejects commercial movie-making orthodoxies.

Rating: four stars

Saturday, July 31, 2010

MIFF 2010: I Love You Phillip Morris

The old saw that real life is stranger than fiction is confirmed with remarkable cinematic dexterity in this charming rom-com about conman and serial prison escapee Steven Russell, currently serving a 144 year prison sentence in a Texas penitentiary for charges including felony escape and embezzlement.

Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (who also co-wrote the screenplay for the scabrous comedy Bad Santa), I Love You Phillip Morris is a frenetically paced, deviously plotted, blackly comic, and deeply romantic account of Russell’s love-fuelled life of crime. That its overt gay content has caused it to be shelved by its US distributors for months – a similar situation exists here in Australia, where it will probably go straight to DVD – is a crying shame, for I Love You Phillip Morris is truly one of the funniest comedies I have seen in years.

When we first meet Steven Russell (played with exuberant flair by Jim Carrey) he is lying in a hospital bed, apparently dying, and reflecting on the vagaries of his life. Thereafter, a series of flashbacks illustrate the many twists and turns of Steven’s story: his formerly straight-laced life as a father, policeman and churchgoing husband to the devout Debbie (Leslie Mann); the highly comic revelation that he is living a secret gay life; and the motor accident-induced epiphany that leads him to live life as an openly gay man.

But as Steven notes, “Being gay is really expensive”. Thus he turns to a life of crime to support his handsome Latino boyfriend (Rodrigo Santoro) and their lifestyle of clothes, accessories, holidays and poolside cocktails. It’s not long before his many frauds and cons land him in jail, where Steven meets the love of his life: the shy, softly-spoken naïf, Phillip Morris (a truly charming performance from Ewan McGregor).

As befits a conman, Steven is an unreliable narrator, and the film’s many twists and turns – mirroring Steven’s increasingly elaborate cons and frauds – are truly startling. He escapes from prison numerous times; gains a job as Chief Financial Officer for a major corporation and siphons off tens of thousands of dollars to fuel an increasingly lavish lifestyle for himself and his beloved Phillip; in short Steven does everything in his power to provide his own off-kilter version of stability and security for himself and his boyfriend.

Gleefully and explicitly crude at times, I Love You Phillip Morris is also unabashedly romantic. There is a palpable chemistry between Carrey and McGregor, and a scene in which the two men slowly dance together in their prison cell as warders beat a prisoner in the neighbouring cell is both heartwarming and hilariously funny.

When the film takes an abrupt U-turn into tragedy late in the piece, it manages the shift in mood without ever being jarring. Dialogue is crisp and sparkling, and the sound design is used to excellent effect without ever being intrusive.

If the film has a fault it is that Carrey is occasionally more over-the-top than the role requires, but for the most part his performance shows remarkable restraint. He may lack the dramatic capabilities of McGregor, whose Phillip Morris is a truly marvellous creation, but Carrey is impressive throughout, by turns sympathetic, outrageous and charming.

In short, I loved I Love You Phillip Morris.

Rating: Four and a half stars

More MIFF 2010: From drag queens to Dante

TO DIE LIKE A MAN

The latest film from Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues is, like his first two features, O Fantasma (2000) and Odete, a queer-themed drama that borders on melodrama; but unlike his earlier films, To Die Like a Man is filmed in such a stylised and fragmented way as to drain almost all emotion from the story in progress.

It opens with a group of camouflage-clad soldiers on a night-time training exercise in a forest. Two of the men creep away from their comrades, and once alone, fall into a passionate embrace which leads quickly to sex, and then to violence.

Next we meet Tonia (Fernando Santos), an aging drag queen dealing simultaneously with two major dramas: his loss of status in the nightclub where he has worked for years, and a highly strung junkie boyfriend, Rosario (Alexander David), who is young enough to be his own son.

At Rosario’s insistence, Tonia is contemplating having a full sex change; a procedure which is explained to viewers in detail early in the film through the inventive use of origami, but we are given no indication that gender reassignment would bring any form of stability to the pair’s relationship, even once Rosario gives up using heroin. Instead we explore the petty details day-to-day of Tonia’s life: her falling out with an old friend, her fights with an up-and-coming young drag queen at work, and her infected, pus-leaking left nipple.

Just when it seems we are going to be witnessing a mundane domestic drama (well, as mundane as any drama can be whose main character is a highly strung drag queen), the film takes a twist by reintroducing the murderous young soldier we met in the first scene. He is, of course, Tonia’s son.

Before we have even had a chance to process this revelation, the film swiftly enters road trip territory – and very trippy territory it is, with Tonia and Rosario encountering a reclusive transsexual couple living in the forest who take them snipe hunting (despite the fact that snipe are apparently extinct). It’s at this point that things get seriously fragmentary, with a sepia-toned, magic-realist musical sequence by an Antony and the Johnsons sound-alike sweeping up the characters for several minutes, after which we’re back to the action, and indeed, back to melodrama.

Of all the films I have seen at MIFF to date, To Die Like a Man is the most baffling and frustrating. Like a deranged cross between Fassbinder and Almodovar, Rodrigues introduces plot elements only to discard them minutes later; embraces melodrama only to abandon it in favour of formal abstraction; and coaxes both magnificent and scenery-chewing performances from his cast.

There is a heartfelt and poignant drama buried somewhere in To Die Like a Man, but unfortunately it is lost – no doubt deliberately – amidst the fragmented, arch and dry film that Rodrigues has crafted.

Rating: Two and a half stars


HOME BY CHRISTMAS

A fascinating, beautiful and affecting film based on the memoirs of the filmmaker’s father, the New Zealand film Home By Christmas is a docu-drama utilising a judicious blend of archival footage and re-created scenes to explore one New Zealand family’s experiences of World War II.

In 1940, on his way home from rugby practise, 28 year old Ed Preston (Martin Henderson) and his teammates joined the army, with Ed telling his pregnant wife Tui (Chelsie Preston-Crayford, the filmmaker’s daughter) not to worry, he’d be home by Christmas. Instead, after only a month’s active service in North Africa, he was captured and made a prisoner of war, spending the next two years interned in Italy, and a further year following his escape in neutral Switzerland. Eventually Ed returned home to New Zealand’s South Island, but in his absence, Tui had fallen in love with another man...

Shortly before he died, an older and wiser Ed Preston told his story to his daughter, veteran filmmaker Gaylene Preston, who has now turned his reminiscences into this charming film, employing Australian actor Tony Barry to play her father and bring his words to life.

The artifice of this framing device – having an actor play the now deceased narrator of the story we’re watching unfold – is quickly forgotten thanks to excellent performances throughout and the pitch-perfect production design by John Harding and costumes by Lesley Burkes-Harding. Vintage steam trains and carefully dressed existing locations are employed to recreate the look and feel of wartime New Zealand, while Ed’s experiences overseas, and the parallel narrative of Tui’s anguish as she waits at home for news of her husband, are brought to life via a wide array of family photographs, and archival footage sourced from a range of institutions including the Istituto Luce Film Archive, Italy; the Australian War Memorial; and the National Army Museum, New Zealand.

Preston’s 1995 documentary War Stories (Our Mothers Never Told Us), in which the director’s mother provided her own account of her wartime experiences, informs this already remarkable story, which is all the more powerful for being subtly underplayed, focussed on small details rather than epic events.

Life on the home front in wartime is rarely explored on screen; and nor are we accustomed to such an honest look at the misery and banality of war as depicted in Home by Christmas. Subtle, gentle and powerful, this is a remarkable cinematic achievement.

Rating: Three and a half stars


HOMECOMING

Screening as part of Dante’s Inferno, the festival’s retrospective celebration of the work of US filmmaker Joe Dante, Homecoming was commissioned as part of the 2005 Showtime cable TV series Masters of Horror, which also featured works by such master genre filmmakers as George Romero (Night of the Living Dead), John Carpenter (The Thing), Stuart Gordon (Reanimator and Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre).

Despite being only an hour long, Homecoming was praised by the New Yorker as the ‘best political film of 2005’, and deservedly so. It’s a biting satire in which the presidency and policies of George W. Bush, and the self-serving attitudes of outspoken Republicans such as Anne Coulter and Karl Rove are mercilessly satirised, via a plot in which the bodies of soldiers killed in Iraq return to life as zombies in order to vote Bush out of office: their revenge for being sent to war based on a false premise.

Unlike traditional zombies, these reanimated soldiers are strangely peaceful, but that doesn’t stop the government – frightened that it might lose power at their decaying hands – rounding them up and interning them, in Guantanamo-style orange jumpsuits no less. “Why don’t we treat them like normal veterans,” one character protests: “Ignore them?”

The satire of Homecoming is admittedly heavy-handed, but for this left-leaning film reviewer, it’s an absolute delight. After all, who needs subtlety when you have zombies?

Screening on the same bill are two other Joe Dante shorts, the mediocre Lightning (1995), a cautionary tale of greed and gold-lust set in the USA’s Wild West; and the far more successful It’s a Good Life, Dante’s segment from the 1983 film anthology Twilight Zone: The Movie.

Based on a screenplay by Rod Serling (which was in turn based on an original short story by Jerome Bixby, voted by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1970 as one of the 20 finest science fiction stories ever written) this entertaining tale of a mutant child with mysterious powers who terrifies his family is most notable for its crazed chiaroscuro lighting and some delightful special effects.

Homecoming: Four stars

It's a Good Life: Three and a half stars

Lightning: Two and a half stars

Monday, July 26, 2010

MIFF 2010 Day 3: More reviews

SPINE TINGER! THE WILLIAM CASTLE STORY

In 1950s’s Hollywood, horror film maker William Castle fancied himself as a low-budget Hitchcock; a larger-than-life personality whose suspenseful movie titles – including The Tingler, House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts – were marketed with originality and flair.

Unfortunately for Castle, while his movies were hugely successful at the box office, the showman-like gimmicks he employed – buzzing seats, flying skeletons, life insurance policies to cover the possibility of his audience members dying of fright – totally overshadowed his directorial flair. The Hollywood establishment snubbed him, and history relegated him to the B-list – until now.

Director and producer Jeffrey Schwarz’s loving tribute to William Castle features a wide range of interviews with Castle’s friends, family and fans – including the likes of directors John Waters and Joe Dante, whose love of Castle’s work influenced their own filmmaking careers later in life – as well as enough archival film clips to satisfy the most dedicated of fans. Everyone interviewed is full of praise for Castle as a showman, and as a human being, even while admitting that his films were not of the highest calibre; a fact that Castle himself recognised, and attempted unsuccessfully to remedy later in life, when he tried to bring Rosemary’s Baby to the screen before the studio gave it to Polanski to direct instead.

Spine Tingler! is a bright, cheerful and thoroughly accessible documentary, and while it may lack a little in critical analysis and contrary opinions – surely there must be someone out there who liked neither Castle or his work – for film fans generally, and especially for devotees of the horror genre, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Rating: Three stars


COWBOYS IN PARADISE

Sex tourism versus holiday romance: where does one draw the line, and are such financial transactions always exploitative? That’s one of several questions raised in Amit Virmani’s entertaining but not especially rigorous documentary about the ‘beach boys’ of Kuta, Cowboys in Paradise.

The permanently tanned and smiling gigolos of Bali’s Kuta Beach who appear in the film claim to make a living from temporary romances with women tourists from Australia, Japan, France and elsewhere. While the men never charge for sex, they are emphatic that the women they service provide financial support in the form of meals and gifts in return for flirtation, attention and sex.

Given that the daily salary of a Balinese farmer is approximately $1, and $3 for construction workers, it’s hardly surprising that a percentage of young Balinese men prefer the easy life of a ‘beach boy’, where they can make at least $5 a day according to one interviewee. Others speak of conducting on-going affairs with regular tourists each time the women return to Bali, claiming to have received enough money over the years to purchase motorbikes and even houses. According to one outspoken newspaper columnist who crops up regularly as a talking head throughout the film, such financial transactions are a key part of the Balinese economy.

A frank and often funny film, Cowboys in Paradise includes interviews with numerous locals, including current ‘beach boys’ Rudi (31), Roy and Wayan (both 25), as well as an older gigolo now aged in his 50s, and even a 14 year old who aspires to the lifestyle. The women, too, get their say, including several young tourists, and even the wife of a ‘beach boy’ who seems perfectly content with her husband’s professional affairs.

While the documentary touches briefly on the issue of sexual health, with one ‘beach boy’ confessing to not using condoms with regular partners and admitting that he has never been tested for HIV, the realities of life in Bali, where the HIV-related death rate per capita is 84 times higher than Australia’s, are quickly glossed over.

The film also fails to explore the issue of economic exploitation of the residents of a developing nation by affluent westerners from a critical perspective, with Virmani seemingly preferring to amuse his audience rather than analyse the issue in any great depth. Of more concern is the fact that the film’s release has caused considerable controversy in Indonesia, including a government crackdown on Bali’s ‘beach boys’ earlier this year.

Ultimately, Cowboys in Paradise is an entertaining film but lacks the intellectual rigour one expects from the best documentaries.

Rating: Two and a half stars


GREEN DAYS

A uniquely personal exploration of the bloody violence that exploded in Iran following the hijacking of the country’s 2009 election by defeated President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hana Makhmalbaf’s striking but frustrating documentary combines the personal, the political and the poetic to craft a harrowing but sometimes surprisingly insubstantial story about hope, change and despair.

Green Days was filmed in Tehran in the lead-up to Iran’s 2009 election, when the green-clad supporters of opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi took to the streets in massive numbers to promote their candidate, as well as in the aftermath of the coup and the shocking violence which accompanied it.

Familiar footage of riot police beating and shooting unarmed civilians is interspersed with direct-to-camera monologues by an almost-hysterical theatre-maker, Ava, whose tearful interventions and symbolic theatrical interrogations of the documentary footage quickly grow repetitive.

Thankfully, in the second half of the film, Ava stops talking about herself and her cynical view of Iran’s internal politics, and begins to engage people on the streets in discussions about their hopes for the election, many of whom are considerably more articulate than Ava herself. The film is at is most effective in these scenes, especially when the filmmaker abruptly cuts away from shots of jubilant Mousavi supporters waving green scarves to familiar scenes, days later, of bloodied bodies being carried aloft by wailing crowds, and of masked militia members clubbing and shooting at unarmed protestors.

A large contingent of Iranian-Australians turned out for the film’s first Melbourne screening at ACMI; within five minutes of the film commencing, the young woman next to me was sobbing loudly, nor she was not alone. Clearly, despite its flaws, Green Days struck a deep chord among much of its audience.

Rating: Two and a half stars


WINTER'S BONE

My personal highlight of the festival to date, Debra Granik’s second feature film is a vivid exploration of the lives of the USA’s working class, and a chilling and compelling slice of rural noir set in the Ozark Mountains in southern Missouri.

When 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) discovers her methamphetamine-cooking father Jessup has put up the family home and their 300 acres of land to make bail after his latest brush with the law, she has only a week to find him before the courts take possession and evict her and family: two dependent young siblings and her heavily-medicated, virtually catatonic mother.

Ree goes in search of her Pa amongst his criminal cohorts, where asking questions is, as one neighbour puts it, “a real good way to end up et by hogs”, but refuses to be put off her search by the many gaunt-faced thugs she encounters along the way, including her violent uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) – who memorably tells his wife in his first scene, “I already told you to shut up with my mouth”.

Every scene breathes authenticity on rank, whiskey-scented breath; this is a film where barely restrained violence and grinding poverty infect every frame, whose characters are forced to hunt and shoot squirrels for food, and where drug-dealing and violent retribution are an every day part of life.

Granik avoids exposition at every turn, preferring instead to tell her story through mood and landscape and powerful, subtle performances coaxed from her cast. As the resourceful, implacable heroine Ree, Jennifer Lawrence is a revelation, while Michael McDonough's cinematography is virtually another character in the film, so strong is its presence.

A grimly powerful Southern Gothic family crime drama, Winter’s Bone is compelling, confronting, and a more than worthy winner of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize for drama.

Rating: Four stars

Sunday, July 25, 2010

MIFF 2010 Day Two: FIRST SQUAD and THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT

FIRST SQUAD: MOMENT OF TRUTH

Screening as part of MIFF's animation program, this Japanese-Russian-Canadian co-production was an odd beast indeed: an occult retelling of the Nazi war machine’s 1942 invasion of Russia as seen through the eyes of a teenage psychic and her dead best friends.

Nadya is the sole survivor of First Squad, a group of psychic soldiers trained by Russia’s mysterious Division 6 (a military branch dedicated to winning the war by magical means). Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and amnesia in the wake of her friends’ deaths, Nadia is sent to Moscow by a mysterious, Obi-Wan-like monk, where she is re-recruited by Division 6’s leader, General Below, and charged with an important mission.

It seems that the Nazis too have a psychic division, the Ahnenerbe, whose dark sorcerers have summoned the spirit of an evil warlord from beyond the grave: Grandmaster Baron Von Wolff, the leader of a terrifying undead horde.

Despite being under constant attack from a pair of voluptuous Nazi assassins, Nadia must somehow enter the spirit world and convince the souls of her dead First Squad companions to help her defeat Baron Von Wolff. Unless he is stopped, Mother Russia is doomed.

This fascinating blend of war movie and ghost story is brought to life through a combination of live action and animation. A series of talking heads – purportedly Russian and German war veterans, as well as modern-day historians and psychologists – discuss the brutal conditions on the Eastern Front and the history of Division 6; their monologues intercut between the unfolding story of Nadya and Baron Von Wolff.

While the animation is vivid and memorable – a fascinating blend of Japanese-style anime techniques and almost photo-realist depictions of the destruction wrought by World War II – the live action moments unfortunately dilute the drama and tension of the story. Without them, the film would be far more effective, but it would also be much shorter: in total, the running time is only 70 minutes, making it feel more like the first episode of a TV series rather than a movie proper.

Nonetheless, as an original look at the Russian experience of WWII, and with its bold direction and striking supernatural imagery, First Squad: Moment of Truth is certainly worth a look for genre fans.

Rating: Two and a half stars

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT

Director Lisa Cholodenko seems drawn to stories of family conflict. It’s a theme she previously explored in her second feature, Laurel Canyon (2002) as well as her Showtime-produced telemovie Cavedweller (2004). In her latest film, The Kids Are All Right, Cholodenko once again explores conflict and drama within the family unit, while also revisiting the lesbian themes of her debut feature, High Art (1998).

The result is a warm, witty and accomplished film about a lesbian couple – Annette Benning as the heavy drinking, control-freak doctor, Nic, and Julianne Moore as her considerably more chilled but less focussed partner, Jules – navigating the difficulties of a long-term relationship, with all the joys and stress that any such relationship entails.

The drama starts when Nic and Jules’ two teenaged children, Joni (young Australian actor Mia Wasikowska, Alice in Wonderland) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson, Journey to the Centre of the Earth) decide they want to get in touch with their previously unknown biological father, sperm-donor Paul (Mark Ruffalo, playing a more together version of the disruptive man-child role that brought him acclaim in You Can Count On Me (2000)).

A free spirit, organic gardener and restaurateur, Paul is an exotic prospect when compared to the children’s decidedly down-to-earth ‘Momses’, and tensions arise when Nic takes an instant dislike to him. Additional complications ensue when Paul hires Jules, who is starting up a gardening business, to landscape his new home, and Nic grows jealous of their growing friendship.

A genuinely delightful domestic comedy, The Kids Are All Right finds a perfect balance between drama and humour, thanks in part to its richly drawn characters and a screenplay co-written by Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg. It also manages to subtly argue that same-sex couples, due to their lack of societal recognition and official support, are perhaps more vulnerable to external disruption than most heterosexual marriages; but while its politics are always gently present on screen, this is not a didactic or a preaching movie. Instead, it is a richly told film that allows all of its characters to share the spotlight one by one (though I would have liked to see a little more of Laser’s story), and which is as touching and engaging as it is laugh-out-loud funny.

Saturday’s screening at the Forum had some framing problems, but they were not enough to distract from this sympathetic, sincere and heart-warming film about love, family, trust and betrayal.

Rating: Four stars

More on MIFF from other local sources (updated)

If you've come here looking for my thoughts and impressions of some of the films screening at MIFF this year, as will probably be the case for new visitors who have come here via Google searches (and welcome! Feel free to comment, provide me with links to your own blogs, etc), I thought I'd take this opportunity to point you in the direction of a few other folk who are blogging the festival also.

My very dear friend Cerise Howard (who joins me on 3RRR every second Thursday to discuss screen culture events in our 'Fistful of Celluloid' segment) has just recently joined the blogosphere. Very recently indeed, in fact. You can catch her MIFF impressions - as well as a very handy list of films that are getting a general release, whether at the cinema or on DVD - at her new blog, A Little Lie Down.

Critic and raconteur Thomas Caldwell is detailing his MIFF adventures over at Cinema Autopsy - expect informed decisions and insightful analysis from him.

Over at Screen Machine you'll get some feisty opinions and discussion from a range of critics and reviewers; while Glenn Dunks is detailing his festival adventures - and his cinema passions and obsessions generally - over at Stale Popcorn.

Two new links for y'all to peruse: the charming Ms Emma Westwood is writing about MIFF (and other cinematic subjects) over at movie (a)musings; and Tara Judah expounds on her festival experience at Liminal Vision. Enjoy!

I'll add more links as I find 'em, so feel free to leave suggestions and links in the comments below!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

MIFF 2010 Day One: PIGGIES and RED HILL

A gentle start to the first real day of MIFF due to my hungover state on Friday - I really shouldn't have had that glass of absinthe at the after-after-party, damn it.

I watched two films on Friday night, the first a restrained Polish/German co-production about teenage prostitutes, the second an unrestrained western set in small Australian town.

PIGGIES

Set in the early 1990s on the border between Poland and Germany, this surprisingly subtle but sometimes clichéd film from director Robert Glinski tells the story of Tomek (Filip Garbacz), a skinny 14-year old with an interest in astronomy who falls into a seedy world of teenage rentboys when he tries to earn money with which to impress his gold-digging club kid girlfriend, Marta (Anna Kulej).

The film is grittily realistic thanks to the screenplay by Joanna Didik, who lived for 20 years in the same town in which Piggies is set. Glinski has wisely chosen to underplay this potentially overblown material, crafting a film that is cool and reserved instead of an overblown melodrama.

Focussing predominantly in an adolescent millieu, the adult characters in the film are either ineffectual or brutal, save for Tomek's caring but helpless German teacher; while the story arc reminds us of what cruel beasts teenagers can sometimes be. It also points out how easily the oppressed can become an oppressor.

The majority of characters - such as Tomek's soccer-obsessed father (Bogdan Koca), his preening, shallow sister (Katarzyna Pysznska), the leering pimp Borys (Tomasz Tyndyk), and Tomek's handsome but unhappy best friend Ciemny (Daniel Furmaniak) - are, alas, sadly one dimensional, but as the complex Tomek, Garbacz is tremendous: a deserving winner of the Best Debut Actor award at the Polish Film Festival.

Piggies (dir. Robert Glinski, Producers Witold Iwaszkiewicz & Eike Goreczka, Germany/Poland, 2009)

Rating: Three stars


RED HILL

The debut feature from Australian director Patrick Hughes is a robust contemporary Western, set in a dying small town in Victoria's high country and starring Ryan Kwanten (True Blood) as the appropriately-named Shane Cooper, a young cop whose first day at a new posting is violently derailed when an escaped murderer (Jimmy Conway, played with excellent menace by Tommy Lewis) rides into town.

An enthusiastic crowd - the first sold-out session at MIFF this year - gathered for the film's Melbourne premiere, following excellent word of mouth from previous screenings in Berlin and Sydney, and judging from the responses of those around me, it seems most enjoyed Red Hill immensely.

I liked it a lot, but despite its kinetic direction, strong performances and beautiful cinematography, I wasn't entirely blown away. Like all good genre films, part of the fun comes from seeing how familiar tropes are handled, and on this account Hughes does well - traditional elements of the Western film are very inventively presented in the startling terrain around Omeo in East Gippsland - but other elements of the story, such as a nod to the traditional legend of the Gippsland panther, are distinctly jarring, and as a metaphor for the damaging effect of colonialism in Australia, heavy-handed in the extreme.

That said, as a story about vengeance and redemption that gives the nod to such diverse cinematic classics as Shane (1953) and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), and as a calling card for Hughes' obvious grasp of dramatic tension, screen violence, atmosphere and mood, Red Hill is great fun indeed.

Red Hill (written, directed and editor by Patrick Hughes, produced by Al Clark, Australia, 2010)

Rating: Three and a half stars