Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 in Review: Cinema

Ten years ago, when I was reviewing films fortnightly on the now defunct 3RRR program Mercury Rising, I saw well in excess of 130 movies at the cinema (at both festivals and in general release) every year. These days, as listeners to my own RRR program SmartArts would know, the performing arts have become my primary focus; consequently the number of films I see each year has declined considerably - which is ironic in a way, as I know far more film critics now, thanks to Twitter, than I did in my film reviewing heyday.

This year, I saw a grand/shameful total of only 40 films in cinemas, compared to - at the time of writing - 121 live productions on stages large and small across Melbourne in 2013. I'll blog about my favourite performances of the year tomorrow, once I've seen War Horse tonight, but for now, let's talk film.

Normally I'd see at least 20 films alone at MIFF; this year I was struck down by a virus and missed most of the festival, primarily by choice - I was coughing so badly, and constantly, that I didn't want to distract people around me. I also missed a lot of the 'important' films of the year such as Margaret, Argo and The Master, many of which have ended up on other people's end of year lists, as work committments at artsHub mean I can usually no longer attend daytime screenings, damn it. 

On the plus side, I managed to catch up with a lot of films on DVD, but I haven't included them on my list of 40 films seen this year, as I currently restrict that only to films seen in actual cinemas during the calendar year. I should probably be less restrictive about that particular criteria next year; revist this blog on 31 December 2013 and we'll see if I've managed to do that, shall we?

Anyway, enough waffle. Here is my list - in alphabetical order - of my nine favourite films (released commercially in Australia or screened at locals film festivals) for 2012. Why only nine? Partially, as mentioned earlier, because I just didn't see enough to have ten films that blew me away this year; and partially because there are a couple of films that almost made it onto the list but which weren't quite memorable enough to include...

All the Way Through Evening 
(dir. Rohan Spong, Australia, 2011)
This understated and affecting low-budget documentary reminds us that a generation of artists were lost to AIDS in the early years of the pandemic. Some of them, such as Keith Haring, were already well known at the time of their deaths. Others, such as Australian playwright Timothy Conigrave, have found fame posthumously. But far too many more had barely begun to express themselves creatively when they succumbed to the ravages of the virus. We will never know what transcendent works they might have achieved, had they only had more time – but thanks to the remarkable work of New York concert pianist and activist Mimi Stern-Wolfe, some of the music created by those lost to AIDS will never be forgotten.
Read full review.

The Avengers 
(dir. Joss Whedon, USA, 2012)
It's been a good year for superheroes, the leaden and tedious The Dark Knight Rises aside - the found-footage movie Chronicle was an unexpected delight, and The Amazing Spider-Man was also deeply enjoyable (thanks in part to a fine performance from Andrew Garfield, who I've admired greatly for years, ever since I saw him in Boy A at MIFF in 2008), but for me, the stand-out of the genre was undoubtedly The Avengers. What could have been a terrible trainwreck of a film, the culmination of a couple of years worth of Marvel superhero movies, instead turned out to be a witty, intelligent, engaging and entertaining romp thanks to writer-director Joss Whedon and his all star cast. The film's highlight, for me, is Mark Ruffalo's turn as Bruce Banner/The Hulk, but I enjoy all the performances, and have already re-watched the film once this year on DVD with great delight. 

The Cabin in the Woods 
(dir. Drew Goddard, USA, 2011)
This deliciously self-aware and intelligent horror/comedy almost went straight to DVD in Australia, but eventually received a limited theatrical release thanks to a determined social media campaign by its fans. I had the pleasure of seeing it on a double-bill at The Astor (whose survival is one of the great cinema stories of 2012), and am so glad I did. Intended as both a celebration of the horror genre and a critique of its recent ‘torture porn’ excesses, The Cabin in the Woods gleefully celebrates the established conventions of the slasher movie while simultaneously throwing the horror rulebook out the window. It’s a film that, if unspoiled, is certain to have you gasping, laughing, and wondering ‘What the fuck?’ all within its first eight minutes. And as we all know, to quote that renowned Transylvanian hedonist, Dr Frank-N-Furter, ‘A mental mind-fuck can nice’.
Read full review.

(dir. Benjamin Cantu, Germany, 2011)

With a background in documentary making, it’s little wonder that Benjamin Cantu’s first feature – a gay romance set on a working farm in rural Germany, and starring a largely non-professional cast – revels in realism, downplaying overt drama for much of the film. The initial pace is slow, even meandering, but the slow accretion of detail – the tagging of a newborn calf; the watering of fields; a stolen glance – ensures that when dramatic scenes do occur, they seem as natural and as acutely observed as other events the film has shown. The real joy of Harvest lies in what Cantu doesn’t show. The tired tropes of coming out films – gay-bashing, rejection, gratuitous nudity – are nowhere to be seen, though the director clearly expects us to expect them, and plays with our perceptions accordingly. 
Read full review.


How to Survive a Plague 
(dir. David France, USA, 2012) 
There's an image from this film, which details the trials and tribulations of US activivists from the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and the Treatment Action Group (TAG), that still makes me cry every time I think about it. Men and women, lovers and mothers, scattering the ashes and bone fragments of their cremated loved ones - who died of AIDS-related illnesses while the US government stood by and did nothing - on the lawns of the White House. As a protest, it's shockingly powerful. It's just one of many remarkable scenes in this excellent documentary about the struggle to make AIDS treatment drugs available to the American public in the 1980s and early 1990s. A remarkable testimony to the tireless work of some true heroes.

I Am Eleven 
(dir. Genevieve Bailey, Australia, 2011)
This no-budget documentary - a composite portrait of children around the world - is heartwarming, charming and life-affirming: a remarkable and engaging tapestry of young hopes, fears and dreams. Like All The Way Through Evening, above, it's the little documentary that could. I first saw it at MIFF last year; this year it received a limited cinematic release, and some wonderful and winning reviews. It's returned for a short encore season at Melbourne's Cinema Nova - do see it if you get the chance.
Read full review. 

King of Devil's Island  
(dir. Marius Holst, Norway, 2010)
Based on historic events, this classic prison drama - set in 1915, on Bastøy Island, a brutal reformatory school/prison for young men - is a cool and compelling study of institutionalised brutality and revolution. Superb performances from Stellan Skarsgård as the prison governor, Benjamin Helstad as the rebellious, impossible-to-break newcomer, Erling, and Trond Nilssen as Olav, a soon to be released prefect, anchor the film. Coupled with Marius Holst's restrained and assured direction, and superb, albeit chilling cinematography by John Andreas Anderson, the result is a film which memorably explores the fine line between pushing someone to breaking point and forcing them into action.

On the Road 
(dir. Walter Salles, USA, 2012)
I'd read some very lukewarm reviews of this adaptation of Jack Kerouac's Beat Generation classic before seeing the film, but found myself loving Salles' movie; it's vibrant, kinetic, and one of the most exhilarating experiences I've had at the cinema all year. While faithful to the book to a fault, it also subtly enhances the women's roles, and has much to say (both in script form and visually) about the roles women played in forming the Beat Generation. This is one film I can't wait to obtain on DVD in order to watch and enjoy again.
Read full review. 

(dir. Andrew Haigh, UK, 2011)
One of the most memorable and accomplished romances ever filmed, Weekend is a frank, intelligent and charming account of two gay men whose one night stand quickly deepens into something much more substantial. Fine performances from Tom Cullen and Chris New; Ula Pontikos' intelligent cinematography, which significantly enhances the audience's understanding of the film's lead characters and their inner lives; an excellent, understated sound design; and Andrew Haigh's script and direction, add up to a fine film indeed.

Runners Up: Hugo, Shame, Life in Movement.

Dishonerable Mentions: Dark Shadows, Prometheus, Rock of Ages, Mental

Hello blog

I've neglected you terribly this year - a combination of working at artsHub, and spending so much of the energy I once would have devoted to blogging to Twitter and Facebook. My new year's resolution is to try and blog more frequently in 2013. Let's see how we go with that, shall we?

Saturday, April 14, 2012


Jennifer Wong - Ouch & Other Words

Sydney comedian Jennifer Wong’s first solo show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival is stand-up for introverts; subtle observational comedy that explores some familiar topics – racism, depression and family dynamics – with no danger of audience harassment or forced participation.

Named by the Sydney Morning Herald as one of the Top 10 New Comics to Watch in 2011, Wong’s material is generally strong, though some routines are let down by awkward segues. Similarly, her call backs need work, and the occasional punchline falls flat because of her hesitant delivery.

Conversely, Wong’s knowing take on the difficulties of being polite in the modern world are fresh and engaging, as are her jokes about an uncomfortable Australia Post anti-racism campaign.

Constructed around the story of why she enrolled in a First Aid course, Ouch & Other Words is a promising hour of stand up from an emerging Australian comedian.

Rating: 3 stars

Forum Theatre, until April 22

Tue-Sat 7.15pm, Sun 6.15pm

An edited version of this review first appeared in The Age on Sat 14th April 2012.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


John Robertson – Blood & Charm: Disturbing Stories for Disturbing Bedtimes

Death camps. Suicide. Sado-masochism. Australian Idol. Dapper Western Australian John Robertson explores the darker side of life with wit and charm in this gleefully macabre hour of stand-up.

There’s something of the shark about Robertson’s wide-eyed smile, and his manic intensity wouldn’t go astray in a Tim Burton film. His best routines are mostly autobiographical in nature, though he cheerfully admits to treating the facts “like George Lucas treats his films,” so that it’s never clear where truth ends and fiction begins in his tales of bondage, self-harm, and theatre in education.

His material – whether he’s dissecting modern drama or advocating the murder of The Sound of Music’s Maria Von Trapp – is edgy, intelligent, and smoothly delivered, though the appearance of a ukulele feels like a hangover from an earlier show, and a late moment of sentiment is a touch too contrived.

Astute, amoral comedy for the morbidly inclined.

Rating: 4 stars

Trades Hall, Evatt Room, until April 22
Tue-Sat 10pm, Sun 9pm

This review originally appeared in The Age on Wed 11th April 2012.

Thursday, April 05, 2012


Idiots of Ants open their show with a WWII skit that successfully introduces the UK sketch comedy troupe’s four charismatic members and their fast-paced style, while simultaneously breaking down the fourth wall. It’s a fine start to a clever show which both reinforces and subverts the conventions of sketch comedy; here, the rapid stream of sight gags and jokes are interrupted by a sports-style halftime show analysing the performers’ strengths, skills and weaknesses.

Highlights include a unique take on love songs; a delightful live-Foley sketch accompanying an absurd silent film; a dad joke training school; and a hilarious 70’s style key party – though one too many skits are let down by weak punchlines, while another that surely intends to satirise sexism actually skirts dangerously close to it.

The quartet’s use of technology is sophisticated without being laborious, and their ability to ad-lib at one another’s expense, without impeding the flow of the show, is commendable.

Engaging sketch comedy that largely avoids the undergraduate.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Melbourne Town Hall, until April 22

Tue-Sat 8.30pm, Sun 7.30pm

This review originally appeared in The Age on Thurs 5th Aril 2012.


Dr Professor Neal Portenza in Choose Your Own Portenza

Imagine every bizarre Japanese game show you’ve ever seen, distil its essential strangeness into a beret-wearing, overly-rouged, white coat clad madman, and you’ll be some way towards understanding the manic appeal of Dr Professor Neal Portenza, aka comedian Joshua Ladgrove.

For his latest show, Portenza has equipped his audience with small electronic voting devices, with which they’re invited to select the outcome of certain events – such as which guests arrive at Portenza’s birthday party. Voting has little real bearing on proceedings, but may provide more nervous types with a sense of security as the night devolves into anarchy.

Portenza will not be to everybody’s taste, and a director would help focus his lunacy – the show’s energy fails in an extended piece of audience interaction – but if your idea of entertainment is a children’s party on acid, then Choose Your Own Portenza! is the show for you.

Rating: 3 stars

Tuxedo Cat, until April 10
Mon & Tue 8.30pm, Thu-Sat 8.30pm, Sun 7.30pm

This review originally appeared in The Age on Thurs 5th April 2012.