Sunday, August 31, 2008

Oh the things that I've seen... (part one)

Because I've been a bad, bad blogger of late - blame my life: there was a hell of a lot happening in July-August, most of which I can't go into detail about - there have been quite a few performances I've attended recently that I haven't had time to blog about: until now. Apologies for the brevity of the following 'reviews' (perhaps 'impressions' would be a better word); I've got rather a lot to catch up on!

Bell Shakespeare's HAMLET

There was a point, a few years ago, where I was determined never to see another Bell Shakespeare production. The company's shows - especially those directed by John Bell himself - had become stale, predictable and tedious, I thought - so much so that the last Bell production I saw, Romeo and Juliet, I walked out of in disgust.

So it was with some foreboding that I went to see the Marion Potts-directed Bell Shakespeare production of Hamlet at the Arts Centre back in July. Happily, it wasn't that bad. Which is not to say it was great, either, but at least the trademarked, forced updating that has marred many Bell productions is absent; and those contemporary aspects that are present, such as a live score performed on-stage by Sarah Blasko, work suprisingly well; tender and sorrowful melodies that counterpoint the stark, industrial set design.

Sadly, the worst thing about this Hamlet is Hamlet himself. As played by Brendan Cowell, the melancholy Dane is a surly, spoilt toff, with little gravitas save for his self-concious renderings of the famous soliliquoys. The rest of the time he seemed slight, restricted in his vocal range and dramatically constipated; especially in contrast to the camp buffoonery of Barry Otto as Polonius, and the exaggerated clowing of the actors playing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

The stark, industrial set was pretty cool, though, as was the zombie-like evocation of The Ghost (what the is it with zombies and the zeitgeist this year for fucks? They're everywhere - see my upcoming Fringe post and you'll see what I mean.) Overall, passable, but nothing spectacular.


I was surprisingly entertained by Matthew Bourne's big-budget dance interpretation - or 'dance-ical' - of Tim Burton's almost perfectly-realised (unlike most of his films) 1990 gothic fable, Edward Scissorhands.

The set was spectacular, the staging clever (the little houses! the fake snow which fell over the audience at the dramatic conclusion of the show!) and the narrative (which film purists may have felt Bourne took some liberties with, especially in the prologue) was abunduntly clear: so much so that my companion for the night, who'd never seen the movie, had no touble working out what was going on, even though he missed the first half of the show.

Yes, it was kitsch, over-the-top and occasionally cheesy. Yes, some of the big scenes, involving the entire cast, were drawn-out and sometimes contrived. But some of the sequences - such as a fantasy in which a scissor-less Edward is actually able to touch and safely hold the girl he's fallen in love with, as the topiary animals dance around them - were visually spectacular and emotionally engaging.

It wasn't as good as Bourne's Swan Lake; and in comparison to some of the best contemporary dance we're spoilt with in this city, courtesy of some amazing local companies and choreographers, it was a bit naff; but what the hell, I thought Edward Scissorhands was kinda fun.

Yana Alana and the Paranas in Bite Me Harder

Director Anni Davey picked up a Green Room 'Best Director' gong for this show in its original incarnation at last year's Melbourne Fringe. It's not hard to see why. This newly-staged, jazzed-up version, featuring The Town Bikes and an amazing aerial drum solo by Bec Matthews, fucking rocked.

Yana Alana (the ribald creation of Sarah Ward, who is also one half of Sista She) took no prisoners and made no friends as she launched into venomous readings from her collection of poems, If You Were A Carrot I Would Have Cum By Now. Throughout the show she also burst into song, and abused her band and dancers in equal measure. It was a bawdy, sassy, sexy, provactive and hilariously entertaining comedy/variety show; and big props to the Arts Centre's Full TILT program for this re-staging. Hopefully we'll be seeing Yana again soon...

Companie Philippe Genty - LAND'S END

I got held up at work on the evening of this performance, so consequently missed the first 45 minutes of this show; nonetheless I was still bored by the time this dated, dull piece of 'poetic theatre' had run its course. What I saw consisted of a sequence of dreamlike vignettes centred around the idea of a man struggling to communicate with a woman (because women are so mysterious and hard to read, don't you know), evoked through puppetry, sudden shifts in perspective, sliding panels, suitcases, sillhouetted figures, extremely stiff and stilted dancers, and vast, billowing plastic bags. If I'd had to sit through the whole show, I probably would have gnawed an arm off in frustration.

There were some sublime moments - but they were few and far between, thinly scattered among some exceptionally tedious, overdrawn sequences. Tellingly, at the after party I didn't speak to one single person from the Melbourne arts world who had actually enjoyed the production - so at least I knew it wasn't just me who thinks that Genty's laurel-resting reputation as a 'master of illusion' is no longer deserved...

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Know any gay footballers?

Stop laughing, I'm serious. The holy grail of gay newspaper editors such as myself is an interview with a gay AFL player. Right now a rumour is doing the rounds (spread by 3AW's morning segment, 'The Rumour File') that the Victorian version of The Footy Show has paid a gay player to come out on the show - presumably tomorrow night.

Now, I've been doing some digging, and I've come up with a few potential names - and no I'm not going to share them with you - but I haven't had any luck finding someone who will speak on the record.

So, I was wondering if perhaps you, dear reader, might just happen to know a gay or bisexual footballer? He doesn't have to play AFL - I'd also be happy to speak with a VFL player or even someone in a country league - or a soccer player for that matter - but I would very much like to interview someone for a feature article on gay men and team sports.

So, feel free to drop me a line: richard dot watts at eevolution dot com dot au - and yes, the two e's in eevolution are deliberate; not a spelling mistake...

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Run away and subscribe to the circus!

Ok you lovely folks (by which I mean all of you who read this blog on even a semi-regular basis; and yes, that means you), you probably know the drill by now.

It's Radiothon time at 3RRR again, which means it's time for our annual shout-out to those of you who listen to and love the station I volunteer for, to please, please, please subscribe to something you don't actually have to pay for out of the goodness of your heart, to help keep such a remarkable independent media outlet alive and kicking and on-air for the next 365 and a wee bit days.

If you subscribe to my show especially, I wil dance the dance of pure, unmittigated joy* the next time I see you. And that's a promise.

This year Radiothon has a circus theme, too - how cool is that?

Please subscribe - you know you want to. You also know that it will make conservatives like Bronwyn Bishop hate you, which is an even better reason to subscribe if you ask me.

Go on. Please. Just for me?

If not for me, how about subscribing for this lovely fellow?

*The Richard Dance of Pure Unmittigated Joy probably looks something like Xander doing the Snoopy dance, if you must know.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The last of MIFF 2008

And so finally, after this long, drawn out process, we come to the final four of the 15 films I saw at this year's Melbourne International Film Festival. Thanks to Richard and his team for their expertise, to the Limelight publicity crew for their assistance, and to my fellow punters for helping make this a truly enjoyable film festival experience. Roll on 2009!


Part of the festival's committment to showing classic Australian films from the past decade, this screening of George Miller's high-octane action flick Mad Max II was introduced by actor Eric Bana, who had hand-selected it (although apparently he actually wanted to screen the original Mad Max, but no print was available) as being one of his favourites. Bana also took part in a Q+A after the film, in which questions ranged from the insightful (such as one about the film's lack of dialogue and strong visual narrative) to the banal (one nervous fan asked: 'I was wondering, um, how you learn your lines?' To his credit, Bana answered most questions well, although I think he dodged mine a little.

I asked about a homophobic element of the film; whether he'd been aware of it as a youth, when he saw the film, and how he interpreted the scene now. If you've seen the film, you might remember the sequence I'm thinking of. It comes quite early in the film, and introduces the film's gay couple:
the mohawked bad guy Wez (pictured, above) and his effeminate blonde boyfriend. The camera pans from the ground up, we see two sets of legs and we think it's a guy and a girl but - shock! horror! - it's then revealed to be two men.

It's a classic example of homosexuality being coded in a way that presents a gay couple as objects to be feared and hated - and ultimately derided, in that we're encouraged to celebrate, even laugh, when the femme blonde guy gets killed as punishment for his subversion of traditional masculine codes of behaviour...

So yeah, that irked me a bit on seeing the film again, and I don't think Bana's question was entirely honest; but he probably thought I was bringing the mood down, or having a go at him or something. I wasn't: I was genuinely interested in his reading of the scene now, as an adult, as compared to when he saw the film originally as a teenager.

And hey, it's still a great action film with some truly breathtaking vehicle stunts - and seeing such a clean print on the big screen was fucking awesome! And for more details on the film and its structure, visit this blog here...


Some audiences may be put off by the fact that this simple drama about men and their at-times painfully repressed emotions is A) very talky, and B) Australian. Please don't be - it's a superb film. The debut feature from director Michael Joy, Men's Group was shot using a simple idea - a group of strangers meet weekly in a suburban lounge room simply, painfully, to talk - and employing a semi-improvised structure that meant the bombshells dropped by each character in certain pivotal scenes were not known beforehand by the other actors, heightening the authenticity of performances. Learn more about it here.

Characters include Alex, a chronic gambler growing increasingly estranged from his wife and son
(Grant Dodwell); an incredibly buttoned-down and straight-laced businessman, Lucas (Steve Le Marquand); the surly, silent Moses (Paul Tassone); urbane senior, Cecil (Don Reid); and wanna-be comedian Freddy (Steve Rodgers). As the film unfolds, the secrets of each man are revealed - in at least one instance under truly shocking circumstances - resulting in genuine depth and an emotional impact I certainly wasn't expecting. Initially slightly strained - befitting the situation its characters find themselves in - Men's Group quickly finds its feet, becoming a finely-tuned, powerful drama that I unreservedly recommend.


This long-overdue documentary about the life and work of English filmmaker, artist and activist Derek Jarman doesn't try to be a cohesive biography. Instead, it seeks to capture something of Jarman's bohemian spirit. Rather than a dry, distant voice-over, actor Tilda Swinton (who worked closely with Jarman over the years) reads from a heartfelt and poetic letter she wrote to Derek after his death; coupled with extracts from a judiciously edited interview with Jarman himself, which provides biographical details and insight about his films straight from the horse's mouth. Stills and extracts from Jarman's films, both seen (Caravaggio, Edward II) and unseen (private Super 8 footage) show us his art, while additional footage from gay rights demonstrations and other events represent Jarman's indomitable spirit in the face of homophobia, a commercial and conservative film industry, and the ravages of AIDS. A triumphant, luminous exploration of Jarman's life and work that had me beaming amidst tears.


Aptly, for a festival in which genre played a major role, this year's MIFF closed with one hell of a horror film; the tense, creative and often truly startling [REC]. Think 28 Days Later crossed with Romero's The Crazies with a bit of The Blair Witch Project thrown in for good measure, and you'll have something of an idea of what this first-hand-subjective handycam-shot film is like. Screaming blood-thirsty zombies, faceless authority figures clad in biohazard suits, a claustrophic environment, and a cast of characters who are rapidly being whittled away: it's all here.

I won't go into details, because to say too much about this film would be to spoil some of its surprises: but let me just state that it made me jump in my seat like no other horror film I've seen in years, for me is certainly something to celebrate. The sound design is fantastic, making great use of ambient sound; the direction conjures up some truly remarkable tension (which resulted in people in the cinema I was in literally screaming in fright) and performances - and effects - are top notch. [*REC] is a horror film with one hell of a buzz, and I for one reckon it's well deserved.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

MIFF part three

Yes, I know that MIFF has now been over for a week and that I should have got my final batch of reviews online a little sooner, but I've been busy, ok? Here are my thoughts on two more of the films I saw, with another four reviews to come...


This strikingly if bleakly shot British film tells the story of 24-year-old Jack Burridge (a sensitive performance by Andrew Garfield), a shy Mancunian delivery van driver freshly released from prison after serving 14 years for a murder committed when he was only 10 years old. After rescuing a young girl from a car crash, the man-boy Jack becomes a local hero, but the attendant publicity threatens the anonymity of his new identity. Simultaneously, two important relationships - his first, fledgling love affair with a lusty co-worker, Michelle (Katie Lyons); and his friendship with Terry (Peter Mullan), his caseworker - highlight issues of trust, love and need in Jack's life - as do the flashbacks which gradually flesh out Jack's past, and the terrible crime another friendship led him to commit. Boy A is a subdued, sombre and evocative film about redemption and despair that I found hard to fault, and which had me wiping away tears at its conclusion.


Based on a popular Swedish novel which I now want to read more than ever, Let The Right One In tells the story of Oscar, a bullied 12 year old boy who gradually develops a close friendship with Eli, a strange young girl who's just moved into the apartment next door. Just how strange she is we learn after her elderly guardian attacks a young man and drains his blood for her. Eli only looks 12 - she's actually much older; and she's a vampire. This poetic, subdued film is far from your average horror movie, and uses silence and stillness to great effect right from its opening scenes, counterbalanced with occasional moments of frenetic intensity - such as a standout scene in which we learn that cats hate vampires... While I had occasional problems with its pacing, overall I enjoyed this coming-of-age story given a magic realist/horror twist.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

MIFF part two

So now I've managed to squeeze in a total of 12 sessions at the Melbourne International Film Festival, which to people who only see a couple of movies a year will seem like a lot of cinema-going in just 13 days, but by my usual festival-going standards is pretty pissweak. Damn work deadlines and tiredness-generating-workloads interfering with my film-viewing pleasure...

Enough grumbling: time for details.


At only 54 minutes, this brief doco about reggae superstar Bob Marley's life, death and career was, unfortunately, the most unsatisfying film I've seen at the festival so far. Its reverential tone never dipped far beneath the surface of the man's life and music; an impression unfortunately bolstered by a series of personal testimonies from those close to Marley, none of whom seemed to have anything bad to say about the man. In short, Bob Marley: Freedom Road felt like a clumsily-produced piece of filler for a cable TV channel, and I regret wasting an hour on it.

Even more frustratingly, the accompanying doco, Upsetter: The Life and Music of Lee 'Scratch' Perry, was by far the better film: imformative, engaging, detailed and analytical, or so it seemed in the 10 minutes I had to appreciate it before racing out of the session to get to the opening of the Melbourne Art Fair 2008... dammit!


Buoyed-up by the sublime experience of a Sigur Rós gig at Festival Hall that had ended just half-an-hour before this session started at 11:30pm last Friday, I was in an excellent mood when the latest schlock opus from Bruce LaBruce (Hustler White, Raspberry Reich) started; and being perfect fodder for a late night slot at the festival, Otto; or, Up With Dead People didn't disappoint. This story of a recently reanimated gay zombie, who falls in with the cast and crew of a strident politco-porno underground zombie movie while trying to reassemble the fragments of his former life, is certainly not for everyone. However, if your tastes extend to deliciously observed irony juxtaposed with low-budget gore, some dead sexy boys (excuse the pun), and a dash of relatively serious commentary about a) the environment and b) the painfully unaware foibles of the self-consciously avante-guard, then Otto is for you.


While not outstanding (I accidentally caught a short film, the name of which escapes me at the moment, at MIFF two years ago which explored a similar premise with considerably more finesse) this feature-length doco by Alexandra Westmeier is certainly not without merit. It's a quiet, contemplative film which dispassionately (at times almost too dispassionately: some more vigor might have made for a structurally more engaging film) and non-judgementally documents the day-to-day lives of a group of Russian teenagers in a boy's reform school over the course of a year.

Some of the boys - all of whom were aged 14 and under at the time their crimes were committed - have been sentenced for two years remand for petty theft; others are serving three years for murder. Over 89 minutes, Westmeier allows these boys to tell their own stories, complete with tears in some cases, and laughter in others. We see the daily routines which may help some of the boys - the majority of them from dysfunctional and impoverished families - develop something akin to normal lives. We also hear occasionally from their bewildered parents, and in one instance from the mother of a teenager who one of the film's softly-spoken subjects violently battered to death. While the uncomfortable seating of the Greater Union Theatre didn't help my appreciation of this film, overall I'd had to describe it as solid rather than especially


Another documentary which suffered from an excess of adulation syndrome, ie a lack of critical engagement with its subject, was this Danish feature about the late Beat Generation writer and author of Junkie, Queer and Naked Lunch, William S Burroughs. That said, it mostly made up for the flaw, in part through its engaging collection of interviewees (including one particularly odd character who, without qualms or self-consciousness, proudly showed us one of Burrough's turds which he'd found floating in the man's sewerage-flooded basement and kept in a jar).

The focus of the film is primarily the author's later years from the 1970s onwards, including his development as a pop culture icon and spoken word performer (though frustratingly, the director failed to acknowledge that Burroughs was an accomplished performer and raconteur as early as 1944, while sharing a house with Joan Vollmer Adams (who he would later marry, then kill) and Jack Kerouac in New York City). The centrepiece around which the doco has been constructed is an array of previously unseen footage from Burroughs' 1983 European tour, specifically his appearances in Denmark.

Fans of Burroughs will enjoy this doco to a degree, but for a Beat Generation devotee such as myself, it was a little lacking in substance, and could perhaps have done with more editing to trim it down to a leaner, sharper running time. An hour would have been ideal; at 74 minutes, I felt this particular doco slightly outstayed its welcome.

More capsule reviews in my next blog entry, hopefully tomorrow...