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:

Friday, August 06, 2010



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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


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