Friday, July 31, 2009

Things I'm thinking about at this particular moment

  1. Whether I should stop wasting time on the internet and go to bed.
  2. Whether another stubby of cider is out of the question before bed.
  3. Will I participate in the National Day of Action for marriage equality tomorrow, or go and see Soderbugh's Che film in two parts at the Melbourne International Film Festival instead?
  4. Why so many gay Torchwood fans are still whining about the death of one particular character in Children of Earth. The writer has every right to kill off his own character you dickheads; just because you're gay and the character was queer doesn't give you any special right to demand RTD ressurect him RIGHT NOW! Jeeeesus.
  5. Have my regular blog readers noticed the sudden increase in film reviews in the last week that are unconnected with the film festival? (If you have, it's because I'm now handling film reviews for the paper I work on, as well as TV reviews, but I don't plan on posting the latter here just yet - I don't think the world really needs another review of The Farmer Wants a Wife season four...).
  6. Whether I should stop wasting time on the internet and go to bed.

Review: PUBLIC ENEMIES (rated MA)



A period gangster film set in the Great Depression, Public Enemies is directed by style-meister Michael Mann in a pointedly non-period way. Shot on high-definition video, cinematographer Dante Spinotti’s energetic and hand-held camerawork belies the carefully designed sets, costumes and colour palette from which the film is constructed.

Nominally the story of bank-robber turned folk hero John Dillinger (Depp) and his mad love for his hatcheck-girl lover, Billie Frechette (Coitillard), the film seems more interested in exploring the rivalry between the gangster and Melvin Purvis (a tightly wound and internalised performance by Christian Bale), the United States Bureau of Investigation (later FBI) agent ordered to track Dillinger down. A scene in which the two man banter tersely from behind bars is expertly and subtly acted, although Mann’s obsession with style over substance means that Purvis – like too many of the characters – is never really developed. Depp, however, is excellent; portraying a dapper gentleman who charms the public even as he uses hostages as human shields.

In crafting Public Enemies so exactingly, Mann has created a carefully stylised arthouse take on the gangster film that entertains, but which never quite gets the pulse racing.

Rating: Three and a half stars

Public Enemies is now showing on general release.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Review: RUDO Y CURSI (M)



Rudo y Cursi reunites the stars and the writer (now writer/director) of the 2001 international hit Y tu mama tambien in a rags-to-riches story of two impoverished Mexican brothers who stumble into football superstardom thanks to an avaricious talent scout.

Whereas the team’s first film was a poignant coming-of-age tale, Rudo y Cursi is a gentle comedic romp that delights in the faults of its unlikely heroes: Tato (Garcia Bernal), a tone deaf accordion player who dreams of success as a pop star; and his short-tempered, gambling-addicted half-brother Beto (Luna, seen recently in Milk as the suicidal Jack Lira).

Narrated by the talent scout Batuta (Guillermo Francella), who discovers the boys when his sports car breaks down in their village, the film focuses on the brothers’ competitive, love-hate relationship and their damaging encounters with the trappings of celebrity. Wisely, it steers away from actually showing the on-field action, save for the climactic match at the film’s finale in which Tato (now nicknamed ‘Cursi’ (‘Corny’) because of his exuberant playing style) is pitted directly against his goalie brother Beto, now better known as ‘Rudo’ (‘Tough’).

Less a film about sport and sibling rivalry than it is a character study shaped by family and fame, Rudo y Cursi coasts along for much of its running time on charm alone, thanks to the charisma of its stars. It’s a sweet but slight film, and will quickly be forgotten.

Rudo Y Cursi is in limited release.

Rating: Three stars

Wednesday, July 29, 2009





Love for an incarcerated brother – and aspiration for a lifestyle that is well out of reach – drive this story of money, drugs and machismo set in Sydney’s Western Suburbs. Tarek (Chantery, in his first leading role) is a young panel beater of Lebanese heritage dreaming of a better life. With his incarcerated brother’s court case stalled for lack of funds, Tarek enrols in a friend’s plan to steal drugs from a criminal gang and sell the pills for profit. He also hungers after Amie (Taylor) and her privileged Rose Bay lifestyle, but with the vengeful gang out for blood, it’s not long before Tarek’s plans come tragically undone.

There have been plenty of stories about drug heists, gangs and bloody revenge in Australian cinema in recent years (think Getting’ Square, Little Fish and most recently Nash Edgerton’s The Square) but what differentiates Cedar Boys is its focus on telling an authentic story from a rarely-seen perspective. Unfortunately, writer/director Serhat Caradee’s story does not sustain the originality of its premise. The rise and fall of Tarek and his friends is clichéd, their dialogue trite, and the cinematography flat and uninspired. Two key scenes which bookend the film display the dramatic tension so sadly lacking in the rest of Cedar Boys, although a driving soundtrack merging hip-hop, techno and traditional music somewhat offsets the film’s sluggish pace.

Rating: Two and a half stars

CEDAR BOYS opens nationally on Thursday July 30.

2009 MIFF Diary part the fourth

More short reviews from the 2009 Melbourne International Film Festival...

(Dir. Duncan Jones, 2009)

As a fan of speculative fiction, I was delighted to see a science fiction film in the festival program that was firmly focused on content and concept rather than blockbuster-style special effects.

Starring Sam Rockwell as an astronaut nearing the end of his three-year solo shift on a lunar base, and the voice of Kevin Spacey as the base robot, Gerty, Moon is a slow-moving and contemplative piece about what it means to be human.

It's not an original theme, and nor is Moon an especially original film - it's clearly influenced by films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris and Silent Running, while its visual aesthetic is clearly indebted to the lived-in and grungy look of Alien - but if you can relax into its minimal pace you'll find much to appreciate, from the performances through to the plot twists (which I'll say nothing of, because the less you know about this film before seeing it the more you'll enjoy it).

That said, the film is not without its faults. Chief among them is that director Duncan Jones fails to develop an emotional tone through the visuals, forcing the film to fall back on that old standby, the heavy-handed soundtrack, to inform the audience when we're supposed to be feeling nervous or sad. In fairness, the soundtrack by Clint Mansell (formerly of UK grebo outfit Pop Will Eat Itself), who also scored the cult film Requiem for a Dream, is suitably atmospheric, rarely becomes intrusive, and more than effectively accents the poignancy of Sam's situation.

Criticisms about pace and emotion aside, Moon is a well-resourced, well played and beautifully lensed SF film that will doubtless find an extremely appreciative audience beyond the festival circuit.

Rating: Three and a half stars

(Dir. Julian Jarrold, 2009)

The first film in a trilogy based on the Yorkshire noir quartet by British crime writer David Peace, and originally commissioned by UK broadcaster Channel 4 for television, Red Riding: 1974 is a grim and gothic tale of murder, corruption and the abuse of power.

Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield) is a cocky young reporter for The Yorkshire Post who returns home after an unsuccessful stint down south, only to be drawn into a web of police corruption via the murder of three young girls and a seemingly unconnected attack on a gypsy encampment. What follows is harrowing, for the audience as well as Dunford.

The film's bleak tone is unrelenting, generating a palpable sense of gloom and misery, as befitting the north of England in the mid-Seventies. Period details are astutely observed without being overpowering - thankfully this is not the sort of film in which a 70's pop song burst onto the soundtrack every few minutes - from the fog of cigarette smoke permeating almost every scene, to the ugly brown jocks worn by Garfield in one of his scenes; while the film's spasmodic acts of violence are viscerally and effectively conveyed.

Unfortunately, director Julian Jarrold (whose previous film was the remake of Brideshead Revisited) seems more concerned with the mood of his film that the story, which is based on the 1975 murder of Lesley Molseed. That said, the story he has crafted is magnificently presented; a world of shadows, rain, and roiling clouds hanging low over decaying tenement buildings and miserable lives.

While performances are excellent throughout (particularly Garfield, but also Sean Benn as the corrupt construction magnate John Dawson; and Rebecca Hall as Paula Garland, the mother of one of the missing children) the film itself seems somewhat lacking in heart, and its story only spasmodically engaging. That said, given that it is the first part of a trilogy, I expect some of the plot holes that appeared in this episode to be filled in further down the track, and that taken as a whole, the film will be more than the sum of its parts.

Rating: Three stars

(Dir. Kirby Dick, 2009)

American director Kirby Dick's fascination for documenting and exposing secrecy and hypocrisy is once again displayed in his latest film, Outrage.

Having previously examined the issue of child abuse within the Catholic Church in Twist of Faith (2004), and more recently tackled censorship in This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006), Dick now turns his attention to the lives and careers of closeted gay politicians such as former US Senator Larry Craig, who consistently voted against gay law reform, but who was also arrested for soliciting sex from a policeman in a public toilet.

Bloggers and independent media sources, as well as witnesses who testify on the record to having had sex with Dick's shady political subjects, are gathered together in a damning indictment of the political forces which conspire to keep gay men in the closet in Washington DC.

Throughout the film, Dick successfully documents the damage the closet causes - politicians so scared of any public suggestion they might be gay that they aggressively campaign against the gay community, voting down marriage rights bills and government support of AIDS programs. Such hypocrisy is the reason that Dick has made such men his target, and is one of the main reasons I enjoyed this film, as I'm not usually a fan of 'outing' people except under such exceptional circumstances as the film explores.

While he never quite proves his theory that the mainstream media has engaged in a conspiracy of silence by ignoring the truth about the sexuality of men such as Larry Craig, Florida Governor Charlie Crist and others, Outrage certainly goes a long way to indicate that there is something rotten in the USA when it comes to the fact of homosexuality in the Republican Party. A fascinating film which would have had even more power had Obama not been elected as President of the USA last year.

Rating: Three stars

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

2009 MIFF diary part the third

As in previous years, I'm trying to run a series of micro-reviews of every film I see at this year's Melbourne International Film Festival. I'm a little bit behind today, as I still haven't reviewed Sunday's films, let alone last night, so away we go!

(Dir. James Toback, 2008)

Ninety minutes of direct-to-camera reminiscences by former Heavyweight Champion of the World Mike Tyson - a notoriously troubled and troubling individual - might not seem like an especially fascinating subject for a documentary, but this film by director James Toback rises above its sometimes problematic subject matter to craft a fascinating portrait of the retired boxing superstar.

A fat child who was often bullied, Tyson fought back for the first time in his life as a boy, after a neighbour had wrung the neck of one of the pigeon's young Mike bred. Thereafter, he says, he refused ever to be intimidated again. In this film, we glimpse that troubled child within, and come some way to understanding - even sympathising - with this damaged yet dangerous individual.

This is definitely Mike Tyson's story in his own words - there are no other opinions offered other than his own, but an array of photographs and archival film clips flesh out the surprisingly emotional story. Seeing this notoriously brutal man wiping away tears as he talks about the death of his mentor and father-figure Cus D'Amato more than 20 years ago reveals that beneath the tattoos and the scars, Tyson is still a compassionate and emotional being.

Conversely, while discussing his notorious rape conviction - a crime he still denies ("I was falsely accused by that wretched swine of a woman") Tyson is frightening frank in describing his sexual misadventures: "I may have taken advantage of women before, but I did not take advantage of her," he says. That such a phrase should spill from the lips of a man who has already explained how his view of women as objects to be conquered was shaped by his idolisation of men such as Errol Flynn is hardly surprising, but it still shocks.

While the film goes too far in its literal representation of the jigsaw puzzle which is Tyson's life - the constant overlapping of the man's dialogue both visually and aurally rapidly grows tiresome - it is nonetheless an engaging and rewarding viewing experience for boxing fans and film lovers alike.

Rating: Three and half stars


(Dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)

One of the original dystopian science fiction films, Godard's Alphaville, une etrange adventure de Lemmy Caution is a curious blend of high concept speculative fiction and film noir cliches. Secret agent Lemmy Caution (American actor Eddie Constantine), a gun-wielding, trenchcoat-clad chain smoker, is sent to Alphaville (in reality 1960's Paris), a society where emotions have been banned, and which is ruled by a despotic computer, Alpha-60.

In the course of destroying the computer's cold control of the city, he meets a beautiful young woman, Natacha Von Braun (Anna Karina), the daughter of Alpha-60's creator, Professor Von Braun, who Caution has been told he must either kidnap or kill. In the course of his mission, Caution and Natacha fall in love - or rather, he shows her his less icy side, and she begins to learn what the forbidden concept of love actually means...

Alphaville contains some striking cinematography and dazzling scenes - such as a sequence in which criminals are executed by a combination of firing squad and knife-wielding synchronised swimmers in an Olympic-sized pool; and a visit to the sort of flea-pit motel that William S. Burroughs would have felt at home in - but it is not easy viewing. By modern standards its premise - that love can triumph over a robotic regime - feels a little hackneyed, and there's no real chemistry to speak of between Karina and Constantine.

The film's visual flourishes, such as regular cutaways to neon signs spelling out scientific equations, distract rather than reinforcing the film's exploration of the individual vs the machine, but its message remains strong, and its flaws are overshadowed by Godard's vision of a remote but not so distant future.

Rating: Three stars


(Dir. Kamen Kalev, 2009)

The debut feature from director Kamen Kalev is a slow-paced study of family life and ethnic divisions in contemporary Bulgaria as seen through the disaffected eyes of two brothers: Georgi (Ovanes Torosian), a 17 year old hanging around the edges of a gang of violent ultra-nationalists, led by the dreadlocked Fish (Chavdar Sokolov), a thug in the pay of a far right politician; and the considerably older Itzo (non-professional actor Christo Christov, who sadly died last year after the film's completion), a former heroin addict and frustrated artist chafing at the confines of his life and sliding into alcoholism.

When 28-year-old Isil (
Saadet Isil Aksoy) and her parents pass through the Bulgarian capital Sofia from their native Turkey en route to Germany, they are attacked by Fish's gang. Coming to their aid, Itzo is also attacked, but manages to call an ambulance as the gang retreat. As her father recuperates in hospital, Isil and Itzo are slowly drawn together, much to her family's dismay.

While there is a quiet beauty to Eastern Plays, the film goes nowhere - which given the alienated status of its leads is perhaps deliberate. The separate strands of the story are never fully integrated, and the film only really comes to life in the scenes when Izil and Itzo are together. Elsewhere it is quietly observational, but not especially engaging.

Handheld camera work, and intimate and honest performances ensure authenticity but fail to lift the film above the realm of the ordinary.

Rating: Three stars

Sunday, July 26, 2009

2009 MIFF Diary Day One

(dir. Erik Poppe, 2008)

This contemplative, slow-burning Norwegian film explores grief, guilt and redemption in the lives of its two main characters: Jan Thomas (Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen) who has recently been released from jail on parole after serving time for the murder of a four year old boy when he was himself only young; and Agnes (Trine Dyrholm) the mother of the murdered child, whose path crosses Thomas' after she recognises him in the church where he has found a job as an organist.

Initially the film is told entirely from Thomas' perspective, taking a sudden shift back in time at a key dramatic point to explore the same few weeks' events we have just witnessed from Agnes' increasingly distraught point of view.

Hagen's performance as Thomas is superb: a model of restraint which hints at the seething emotions churning between his seemingly-placid surface; while Dyrholm beautifully conveys her character's slow descent into near-madness. Supporting performance are also excellent, especially Ellen Dorrit Petersen as Anna, a single mother who is also the priest at the church where Thomas performs, and who finds herself slowly drawn to him.

While the story never quite drifts, its pace is a deceptively gentle one, with director Erik Poppe seemingly concerned as much by mood and tone as by the story he is telling. He also avoids moralising, presenting unbiased studies of both his characters, despite the fact that Thomas has never quite faced up to the blood on his - relatively innocent - hands, and Agnes rapidly transforms from a calm and collected school teacher to a stalker and kidnapper. That both characters remain so sympathetic is a testimony to the film's strong performances, and to the elliptical and poetic screenplay by Harald Rosenlow-Eeg.

Troubled Water is an aesthetically beautiful and emotionally ambiguous film that packs a great punch into its relatively small scope, but which also feels somewhat distant and restrained as a result of its carefully considered structure.

Rating: Three and a half stars

(Dir. Louie Psihoyos, 2009)

Louie Psihoyos' documentary about the capture and slaughter of dolphins in a small Japanese coastal town is remarkable not only because of its subject matter and how it is told, but for the way it ties together a number of plot threads - environmental issues, historical events, and a potential health crisis facing Japan - into a tightly edited and compelling whole.

Every year in Taiji, Japan, local fisherman herd wild dolphins into shore en masse. A handful are sold and enslaved to marine entertainment parks around the world - places like Sea World on the Gold Coast. The majority are cruelly butchered, and their mercury-tainted meat is sold for public consumption; but the number of dolphins killed far exceeds demand, and so their meat is given away for free as lunches to Taiji's school children, despite the health risks such consumption entails.

Led by Richard O'Barry, a former dolphin trainer who has since renounced the trade and exhibition of dolphins for human entertainment, and who believes that dolphins are sentient, self-aware creatures, the film follows a band of eco-activists as they infiltrate the tightly guarded cove where the dolphins are barbarically slaughtered, using thermal cameras and hidden cameras to capture the compelling footage they hope will bring an end to the dolphin-meat trade.

The Cove is definitely and proudly one-sided - no alternative arguments are put forward, for example, to contradict O'Barry's claims that the captivity of dolphins is cruel and uncalled for - but it is also exceptionally well crafted. From highlighting the manner in which Japan has brazenly bribed member nations of the International Whaling Convention (the film visits a multi-million dollar fish factory built for a Caribbean country in exchange for their pro-whaling support which today is used to store chickens), to detailing the public health risks posed by the consumption of mercurry-poisoned dolphin meat, the film pulls no punches.

The film is especially engaging when it comes to documenting the eco-warrior tricks used to infiltrate the Taiji cove where the dolphins are killed - and it does not shy away from showing the confronting results, in which the waters of the cove literally turn red with blood. A highly recommended and deeply affecting documentary that will ensure you never look at dolphins in captivity the same way again.
Rating: Four stars

(Dir. Park Chan-wook, 2009)

Fresh from Cannes, where it won the Jury Prize, comes this sexy, stylish, bloody and original take on the vampire film by cult Korean director Park Chan-wook.

A failed medical experiment (exactly why the experiment is necessary, or precisely what the disease is that it is part of the quest for a cure for, is never clearly explained, but just relax and go with the roller-coaster flow of the film) results in Father Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho) becoming a vampire, complete with increased strength and agility, an aversion to sunlight and an insatiable thirst for blood - as well as a few other vices he picks up along the way - such as a deep hunger for lusty young shop assistant Tae-joo (Kim Ok-vin), although she unfortunately comes complete with an overbearing mother-in-law and a drip - literally - of a husband...

Sex, death and murder - these are such stuff as Korean film fans' dreams are made of, and from snotty ghosts to wire-work feats of vampiric agility over the rooftops, Thirst does not disappoint. The blackly humourous tone, despite bloodletting and broken bones aplenty, never really falls into horror film territory; instead it satirises Korean attitudes towards family and religion, while providing foreigners such as myself with exquisitely composed and startling mise-en-scene.

Inspired by Emile Zola’s 1867 novel Therese Raquin, Thirst is a story of moral conflict and corruption told with an uncertain but always entertaining tone, and incorporating acrobatic camera-work, excellent performances, and buckets of blood galore.

Rating: Four stars

This is the second of a (hopefully daily) series of reviews I'll be posting from the 2009 Melbourne International Film Festival. Check back tomorrow for more mini-reviews.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

2009 MIFF Diary: Opening Night

The opening night of any festival is always An Occasion - the opening night of the Melbourne International Film Festival especially so. Dapper gents in tuxedos and black ties, women in stunning gowns and shawls, filmmakers and actors and familiar faces in abundance spilling out across the many levels of Hamer Hall, and champagne flowing for all.

This year's festival opened with the traditional but for once relatively brief speeches by an array of dignitaries, including the welcome announcement by Premier Brumby that the Victorian government was supporting Victoria University's East Timor scholarship fund to the tune of $300,000, which will enable 10-15 Timorese students to study at VU in the coming months.

Speeches delivered, we sat back to watch the opening night film: the world premiere of director Robert Connolly's Balibo, a powerful account of a shameful episode in modern Australian history.

On October 16, 1975, five journalists - Malcolm Rennie and Brian Peters from Channel Nine, and Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham and Tony Stewart from Channel Seven - were murdered by Indonesian troops in the East Timor border town of Balibo. Another Australian journalist, Roger East, was executed a few weeks later, in Dili, when Indonesian troops invaded East Timor en masse.

The Australian government has never formally investigated the men's death, and at the time quietly accepted the Suharto regime's claim that the Five were caught and killed in crossfire between East Timorese and Indonesian troops. Nor did the Australian government protest Indonesia's subsequent invasion of East Timor: in fact it encouraged it, as revealed in diplomatic cables that were released in September 2000.

In 2007, a NSW coronial investigations into the death of camerman Brian Peters fround that "The Balibo Five ... were shot and or stabbed deliberately, and not in the heat of battle" in order to silence them from exposing Indonesia's invasion plans.

At least 100,000 people are estimated to have died as a result of Indonesia's 25-year occupation, which ended with East Timor's independence in 2002.

Balibo focuses on Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia), an experienced investigative journalist who is invited to East Timor by a young José Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac in the role of East Timor's future President) to head up the fledgling nation's News Agency. Instead, East sets out to discover what happened to the missing journalists.

Cutting between two timelines - East's own journey and the experiences of the Balibo Five - means that both stories are given equal measure, although I felt we never really got to know Shackleton (Damon Gameau) and his compatriots all that well. Was Shackleton a crusader obsessed with revealing the truth, or a naive fool who ignored the locals' warnings to flee while they could? The film doesn't really tell us enough to decide either way. Roger East's character, conversely, is extremely well drawn, flaws and all.

Juxtaposing a series of events in the same locations but seperated by a few weeks' time enables Connolly to contrast the mens' differing experiences with devestating effect, most poignantly in a sequence that cuts from Greg Shackleton's direct-to-camera report from "an unnamed village" in East Timor, to East's discovery of the same village, its residents massacred by Indonesian troops.

While Balibo initially plays out somewhat slowly, Connolly's use of dramatic tension is skillfull in the extreme, as is the evocation of the time and place in which the film is set. The film's political message about Australia's inaction over East Timor is always present but never overshadows the human drama played out on screen; and the use of a modern-day framing device to tell the tale, in the form of a testimony given to East Timor's Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation gives the film added poignancy.

The murder of the Five, when the awful moment comes, is truly confronting, although East's subsequent death is less powerful, and one of the few moments where this otherwise finely judged film slips into bathos.

Overall, Balibo is a powerful and important film; one that will inform a whole new generation of Australians about a dark day in our history; and one that reinforces the bond between Australia, and our island neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste.

Rating: Four stars

Balibo is released nationally on August 13.

This is the first of a (hopefully daily) series of reviews I'll be posting from the 2009 Melbourne International Film Festival. Check back tomorrow for more mini-reviews.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Review: Strangers in Between

The latest production at North Fitzroy's Store Room Theatre is a play which director Ben Packer has been trying to stage locally ever since he saw the original production at Sydney's Griffin Theatre in 2005.

Written by Tommy Murphy, (best known for his beautiful adaptation of Timothy Conigrave's memoir Holding the Man) Strangers in Between is the story of 16 year-old Shane (Aljin Abella), who has run away from Goulbourn in country NSW after being sprung in flagrante delicto with another boy by his violent older brother, Ben (Cameron Moore). But the play is much less about the fallout of that moment than it is about growing up, about how we construct new families for ourselves from the people around us, and about fear, friendship and love.

Shortly after ending up in Sydney's notorious Kings Cross, Shane starts work at a bottle shop where he meets, in rapid succession, a handsome boy named Will (also played by Cameron Moore) and the considerably older Peter (a superb performance by local theatre stalwart Bruce Kerr). Each becomes a key figure in Shane's life as the play unfolds over its approximately 90 minute running time.

Fast-paced, frank and very, very funny - although at times also deeply moving - Strangers in Between beautifully showcases Murphy's excellent ear for dialogue and his grasp of the vernacular, as well as his ability to deftly juxtapose tragedy and comedy without emphasising or detracting from either.

One of the play's best rendered scenes is a delightful piece of dialogue between Shane and Peter at their second meeting that manages to be both charmingly flirtatious and delightfully naïve; while later in the piece Murphy allows humour to shine through in a hilarious sex scene that nonetheless perfectly encapsulates Shane's voluble energy, as well as his adolescent fears.

Fear is at the heart of the play - Shane's fear of his brother's violence, and of his own sexuality; as well as fear from another incident in his and his brother's past that plays out late in the play's narrative. But while this nervous thread runs through the work, so too do love and tenderness, and an awareness of the importance of friends and the family we make of our friends in those important years after we have moved out of home. The play's final scene encapsulates this beautifully, both in the way it is written and the way it is staged in this memorable and excellent production.

The stark and simple set design by Micka Agosta (who also designed Holding the Man) captures perfectly the neon-lit world of Kings Cross which the characters inhabit; while Packer's direction is confident and assured. In light of recent discussions in the Melbourne theatre scene about colour-blind casting, it is also heartening to see this practise played out in Strangers in Between.

Disclaimer: I am a member of the Store Room Theatre's interim Advisory Board.

Monday, July 20, 2009

First official shot of the 11th Doctor in costume!



Sorry about that. Go here for more formal details of this breaking news.

*goes back to squeeing around the flat in a state of wild fanboy excitement*

My MIFF program

This is a list of all the sessions I've booked at this year's Melbourne International Film Festival. It's a good mix of drama, horror, documentary, music and more - 60 films in total. I won't get to every session I've booked, I know, but I'll have a damn good time trying...

Friday July 24

BALIBO - Arts Centre, 7pm

Saturday July 25

TROUBLED WATER - Greater Union, 12.15pm
THE COVE - Greater Union, 2.30pm
EDEN IS WEST - Greater Union, 7pm
THIRST - Greater Union, 9.15pm
EDEN LOG - Greater Union, 11.30pm

Sunday July 26

YOUNG FREUD IN GAZA - Greater Union, 12.15pm
TYSON - Greater Union, 2.30pm
ALPHAVILLE - Greater Union, 4.45pm
EASTERN PLAYS - Greater Union, 7pm

Monday July 27

MOON - Greater Union, 7pm

Tuesday July 28

HOME - Forum, 12.15pm
RED RIDING 1974 - Forum, 4.45pm

Wednesday July 29

LAND OF MADNESS - Forum, 2.30pm
RED RIDING 1980 - Forum, 4.45pm
FISH TANK - Greater Union, 9.30pm

Thursday July 30

BURMA VJ - ACMI, 2.30pm
RED RIDING 1983 - Forum, 4.45pm
THE HURT LOCKER - Greater Union, 9.15pm

Friday July 31

SKIRT DAY - ACMI, 12.30pm
THE MISFORTUNATES - Greater Union, 4.45pm
BRONSON - Forum, 7pm
KIMJONGILIA - Forum, 9.15pm
MUM & DAD - Greater Union, 11.30pm

Saturday August 1

CHE PART 1 - Forum, 11.30am
CHE PART 2 - Forum, 2.15pm
LOUISE-MICHEL - Greater Union, 4.45pm
BLOOD APPEARS - Greater Union, 9.15pm
THE BURROWERS - Greater Union, 11.30pm

Sunday August 2

KISSES - Forum, 12.15pm
DEFAMATION - Greater Union, 4.45pm

Monday August 3

KATALIN VARGA - Forum, 4.45pm
UNMADE BEDS - Greater Union, 7pm
MY NEIGHBOR, MY KILLER - Greater Union, 9.15pm

Tuesday August 4

FLAME & CITRON - Forum, 9.15pm

Wednesday August 5

THE MAID - Greater Union, 4.45PM
MORPHIA - Greater Union, 7pm
ANTICHRIST - Greater Union, 9.30pm

Thursday August 6

FOOD INC - ACMI, 4.45pm
BLESSED - Greater Union, 7pm
HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN - Greater Union, 9.15pm
HOME MOVIE - Greater Union, 11.30pm

Friday August 7

DEAD SNOW - Greater Union, 7pm
EDEN LAKE, Greater Union, 11.30pm

Saturday August 8

$9.99 - Greater Union, 12.15pm
ZIFT - ACMI, 4.45pm
BRAN NUE DAE - Greater Union, 8pm

Sunday August 9

THE LIBERTY OF NORTON FOLGATE - Greater Union, 12.15pm
THE BASTARDS - Greater Union, 4.45pm
THE WHITE RIBBON - Greater Union, 7pm

Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Alan Rickman

Director: David Yates

Rating: Three stars

Audiences have keenly watched young wizard Harry Potter (Radcliffe) growing up since his first on-screen outing in The Philosopher’s Stone (2001). Now, an older and wiser Harry – alongside best friends Hermione Grainger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) – must battle not only with evil, but also their own feelings: Ron and Hermione are beginning to acknowledge their growing attraction to one another, while Harry is equally, and awkwardly, drawn to Ron’s younger sister, Ginny (Bonnie Wright). Meanwhile, a dark pact between Harry’s student nemesis, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) and sinister teacher Severus Snape (Rickman) threatens the safety of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Based on the penultimate book in J. K. Rowling’s mega-successful series, director David Yates struggles to match the tone of the previous instalment, The Order of the Phoenix, which he also helmed. Despite some stunning setpieces – including a dynamic wand duel in a school toilet that Freud would have had a field day with; and an attack on the Weasley home that ratchets up the tension – the film’s biggest problem is that little of real note happens until the final scenes. The climax, when it comes, is truly touching, but an overlong running time and an overdose of adolescent romance (as well as some uneven acting) detract from what could have been a far stronger movie.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

MIAF 2009

The program for the 2009 Melbourne International Arts Festival (MIAF) was launched earlier this week, and is already generating significant debate in the blogosphere.

Over at Born Dancin' you can read the author's concerns about the apparent lack of cultural diversity in the festival program, and further thoughts about the festival's desire for exclusivity; while the crew at Spark Online note how the new Festival Director, Brett Sheehy, comes with a certain amount of baggage ("The new Artistic Director’s bio carefully stresses the numbers, reading like a corporate profile," they write) and, like Born Dancin', they also note the "culturally homogenous program dynamic". Ultimtely, though, their conclusion is "We are not at all disappointed" with MIAF 2009.

Over at Theatrenotes, Alison Croggon views the program in a far more positive light. "MIAF 2009 promises to be a really interesting festival, and will attract a wide range of people," she writes.

What I think will be explored below.

To begin with, some of you will be able to read my own thoughts over at Arts Hub, where I describe incoming Artistic Director Brett Sheehy's first MIAF program as 'Euro-centric ... considered and safe'.

It was an interesting piece to write, as Sheehy was unavailable to speak to me about his festival program, unlike the directors of the Darwin and Brisbane Festivals, who have also launched their programs in recent weeks. I would have preferred that Sheehy speak for himself about the range of works, the strengths and weaknesses of his program, but that turned out not to be possible. (Nor did Sheehy take questions from the assembled media at a MIAF media briefing a few weeks prior to the launch, which did strike me as a bit odd, quite frankly. Why have a media briefing at all if you're not going to discuss the program, and your reasoning behind including or excluding certain events, with the assembled journalists?)

But anyway, let's concentrate on the program.

The Good

There are numerous events in the program which have caught my eye, including...

A very strong visual arts program, programmed by Simon Maidment, which unites artist-run initiatives like Conical, commercial galleries such as Anna Schwartz, and state-supported venues such as the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art and Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces. Artists from Australia, South Africa, Brazil, the UK and other countries are presented across a range of media, including film, installation, photography and design.

Beck's Rumpus Room showcases the cultural diversity I would have liked to have seen spread across the entire program. Bands such as Fischerspooner (UK) Melt Banana (Japan), My Disco (Australia) and Ramallah Underground (Palestine) can be seen for $15 a night, which is an absolute bargain. Definitely somewhere I will be spending a few of my nights I suspect!

Dance fans will find much to interest them in the program. The more I read about the UK-based Hofesh Shechter Company, the more I look forward to seeing them, with In your rooms described by The Guardian as "probably the most important new dance work to be created in Britain since the millennium". And it features Sigur Ros on the soundtrack - yay! I'm not much of an opera fan, so I'm less exited by Sasha Waltz's Medea, but I do look forward to seeing Körper, given the amazing reviews that Waltz and her dancers are generating.

From Ireland, the Abbey Theatre's Terminus is going to be a must-see for me, given that it won The Scotsman newspaper's Edinburgh Fringe First Award - high praise indeed given the scale and strengths of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; and likewise, the two works presented by the Melbourne Theatre Company, Andrew Bovell's When the Rain Stops Falling and Lally Katz's Apocalypse Bear Trilogy are also high on my list.

And I will also have to check out a gig at the Planetarium, Elemental, which merges sound art, video art and poetry, especially because the four poets involved - alicia sometimes, Sean M. Whelan, Emilie Zoe Baker and Paul Mitchell - are all old friends of mine.

The Bad

As with Born Dancin' and Spark Online, the Euro-centric nature of much of the performance program concerns me.

It is homogenous, with the festival's major acts drawn from a handful of countries - France, Germany, Italy, the UK, the Netherlands, the USA, Germany, Germany again, the UK again, Iceland, Belgium, Belgium, the UK, Germany yet again...

There are, however, plenty of Australian acts in amongst them, though the inclusion of Chunky Move strikes me as predictable, and perhaps a little unimaginative, given the strengths of the local dance sector.

I'm also a bit dismayed by the dominance of music over other artforms, especially orchestral and classical music. You've got the London Philharmonic, the Australian String Quartet, Vocalconsort Berlin, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, a Back marathon, and a series of concerts based on three religiously-themed classical music works, to name just some of the works on show.

Brett Sheehy's public statements valuing 'exclusivity' are also concerning to me. Dialogue and cultural exchange are experiences I greatly value, and a key part of making art in any city, but especially in Melbourne. That said, as someone who has worked professionally in the arts industry on and off since 1999, I recognise the economic imperatives which might drive such measures: it doesn't mean I have to agree with them though.

And I'm also suprised by the lack of projects which would lead to a lasting impact for the local arts sector. I can find no mention of workshops by visiting artists in the program which might lead to a legacy beyond successful box office takings; and the Artists' Bar, where local and visiting artists could rub shoulders and share experiences and ideas is no more. (That said, there will be a series of forums and talks at the Arts Centre Fairfax Studio throughout the festival, which I hope will provide some stimulating discussion.)

Finally, at the media launch, Sheehy spoke about wanting to ensure his festival engages with regional Victoria, but instead of actually programming events in the regions, or helping create partnerships between regional artists and those from Melbourne or overseas, his solution has been simply to bus people in from regional centres such as Ballarat and Bendigo. Again, not something that nurtures the local arts ecology in any meaningful or lasting way.

* * *

So there you have it. There are aspects of the festival that appeal to me, and others that I definitely find problematic. Those of you reading this will also, naturally, have your own point of view - especially those of you who work for MIAF, and trust me I will know when you visit and leave anonymous comments, thanks to my statcounter - and I look forward to reading your thoughts. Especiall yours, Brett Sheehy, if you're around!

Most of all, I look forward to seeing some art that moves and excites me, and leads to stimulating conversations with the people around me, whether it's at MIAF or MIFF or Fringe or the latest, dazzling work by BalletLab, which I saw last night and which I hope to find time to blog about tomorrow.

On with the show!

The Melbourne International Arts Festival runs from October 9 - 24.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Review: Circus Oz - BARELY CONTAINED

The latest show from Melbourne’s Circus Oz serves up a dizzying banquet of clowning, juggling, slapstick and acrobatics that delights and excites in equal measure.

A mix of old and new performers – including the outstanding Emma J Hawkins, a remarkable all-rounder who stands just over one metre tall – and the fresh eye of co-director Derek Ives, coupled with the vision of Artistic Director Mike Finch and the skills of the company’s existing troupe, ensure Barely Contained is a remarkably fresh show that belies the company’s age.

Founded in December 1977, with its first performance season in March 1978, Circus Oz helped spearhead the new circus movement, which abandoned animal acts in order to celebrate and showcase human physicality in all its forms. In the 31 years since its inception Circus Oz has toured to 26 countries on five continents; and indeed, its latest show will shortly leave Melbourne to embark on a national tour, travelling as far north as Port Macquarie and as far south as Hobart.

Thanks in part to a ‘Circus Lab’ at the company’s Port Melbourne headquarters earlier this year, Barely Contained is bursting with new tricks, and new takes on existing acts.

Plate-spinning, juggling, tap-dancing, trapeze and hula-hooping are performed with verve and vigour, while the company’s signature act – the entire ensemble riding around the ring on a single bicycle – is playfully acknowledged in a routine performed by strongwoman Mel Fyfe, who singlehandedly lifts an eclectic array of performers, seated on a single beam, off the ground.

Fyfe is very much at the heart of the show – her bed-of-nails act in the second act especially – but it is her partnership with Emma J Hawkins which truly dazzles. Together, the strongwoman and the diminutive performer, actress, dancer and singer are a remarkable double-act; a situation which clearly requires a significant degree of trust between the two women given their radically different sizes.

Hawkins’ stilt-walking routine, which satirizes the traditional image of the ballerina, is one of the show’s most memorable scenes, and simultaneously subverts stereotypes around traditional notions of beauty and femininity – a Circus Oz tradition which is very much alive and kicking in Barely Contained.

A flirtatious double-act involving a pile of chairs precariously balanced atop bottles is another highlight of the show, as is a clever Salvation Army-style sight gag, and a remarkably simple-seeming yet hilarious piece of clowning involving being stuck in a seatless chair.

An accomplished trio of musicians – newcomer Shannon Barnett, sound designer Carl Polke and musical director Chris Lewis – provide the exuberant soundtrack for this splendid show, which, true to its title, threatens to burst out of the ring at any moment, such is the verve with which it is performed.


Melbourne, under the Big Top, Birrarung Marr, until July 12

Port Macquarie, Glass House, August 13 – 16
Launceston, Theatre North, August 21 – 22
Hobart, Theatre Royal, August 27 – 29

Mildura, Mildura Arts Centre, September 2
Griffith, Griffith Regional Theatre, September 5
Brisbane, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, September 9 – 13
Penrith, Q Theatre, September 17 – 19
Bathurst, Bathurst Memorial Entertainment Centre, September 25 – 26

Orange, Orange Civic Theatre, October 2 – 3
Canberra, Canberra Theatre, October 7 – 11

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Seizing the day

Jack's memorial service was on Friday. I was the MC, and managed to hold it together right until the end. It was the final photos of Jack, taken on his and Dee's honeymoon and set to a Nick Cave song, that set me off.

I was crying as I made my closing comments to the vast crowd that had gathered to celebrate a life lived to the full.

That's something I took from the memorial, and from all the wonderful words that were said about Jack - that he seized the moment and lived every day like it was his last.

Here's to doing the same.

Last night was the program launch for the Melbourne International Film Festival. There's some fascinating films in the program (which will be made available to the public with The Age this Friday), and everyone will have their own favourites, but here are just some of the films that have caught my eye so far:

  • The Red Riding trilogy, a film about the Yorkshire Ripper murders in 1970s-80s Britain, screening in a new package called Vengeance is Mine, films that turn on the theme of retribution;
  • Blessed, a new film by Ana Kokkinos (of whose The Book of Revelation, the less said the better) and screenwriter Andrew Bovell, based on the remarkable play Who's Afraid of the Working Class by Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Christos Tsiolkas and Melissa Reeves;
  • The closing night film Bran Nue Dae, an energetic Indigenous road-movie musical directed by Rachel Perkins;
  • The opening night film Balibo by director Robert Connolly, about the Australian government's complicity in the murder of five journalists by Indonesian soldiers in East Timor in 1975;
  • An Englishman in New York, in which John Hurt once more dons the role of England's stately homo, Quentin Crisp;
  • Steven Soderbergh's two-part epic about the revolutionary Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, Che;
  • and the black and white Bulgarian noir thriller Zift, which screens in another new package of films, The End of Europe: New Balkan Cinema.
There's a lot more to write about, which I'll do after I've had more time to devour the festival program properly.

Other things I haven't had time and/or energy to blog about lately include:
  • The re-launch of The Store Room Theatre last Wednesday night (check out the theatre's website for details of the 2009 program - some great-looking shows are coming up!);
  • The final monthly installment of the Anarchist Guild Social Committee show at Trades Hall Sunday week ago, which was a fantastic collection of original sketches by some great local comedians; and,
  • The latest Last Tuesday Society at Yah Yah's last week, at which I happily hooted with mirth; and which sadly was the last installment of the event until September, as Rich is going to Edinburgh and Bron’s working on her solo show for Melbourne Fringe.

Oh yeah, and I finally caught up with Barely Contained, the new show from Circus Oz on Saturday night. A full review coming soon!

Tonight, if you're free, come and check out FULL TILT - The Talk Show at the Arts Centre at 6.30pm in the State Theatre foyer: the second in a series of free forums I've curated and am presenting. Tonight we talk about non-verbal language in performance - dance, circus and more.

And as soon as the forum is over I'll be racing straight home to watch episode one of Torchwood: Children of Earth on UK TV at 8.30 pm. It promises to be one hell of thrill-ride through some dark sci-fi and government conspiracy territory.

I can't wait!