Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Year in Review

2006 has been a great year of cinema. Not only have I seen more films this year than any other (more than the previous two years put together). But also the quality of films has increased. I maintain a database of films I’ve seen and the scores I’ve given them. I have developed a competition with myself to try to increase the year’s average score from year to year by avoiding films that I expect to be at best ordinary. Life’s too short to waste on throw-away movies.

This year I have managed to weed out most of the dogs. However, it’s getting harder to beat the previous year’s average because over time I’m becoming more critical of the films I see. Perhaps past scores have been generous by my standards of today.

Highlights for me this year have been:

  1. Starting a dedicated calendar in MS Outlook for film releases, festivals and special screenings.

  2. The discovery of ACMI as a rich source of film screenings not available elsewhere. At the start of the year I was between jobs and took the opportunity to catch up on as much cinema as I could.

    ACMI’s Stanley Kubrick retrospective in January afforded the opportunity to catch up on his films I hadn’t seen. I saw Killer’s Kiss (1955), The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957), Lolita (1962), Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Love the Bomb (1964) and Barry Lyndon (1975). Lolita was my pick with 4.5 stars and I gave 4 stars to each of the others. I had been to ACMI a few times prior, but now I make it a point to see what ACMI is screening.

  3. Discovering Melbourne Cinémathèque. My partner Zoe and I selected Wednesday as a week-day evening to see a 7pm film each week after work. By chance this is the day that Cinémathèque has it’s screenings at ACMI. $85 buys annual membership and the opportunity to see around 100 rare and classic films on the big screen. Some of the highlights of this year were films by Jean-Pierre Melville, Maurice Pialat, Marco Bellocchio, Andrei Tarkovsky, Rainer Fassbinder, Werner Herzog and (my favourite director) David Lynch.

  4. Becoming a committee member of Melbourne Cinémathèque. I turned up early for the regular screening one week, not knowing that the Annual General Meeting was to be held. An invite was given for further committee members, and I took up the offer.

  5. Writing a 2,000 word review of David Lynch’s Lost Highway (my all-time favourite film) for distribution at Cinémathèque. This was a challenge for me as I hadn’t written to this extent on cinema before and also because of the very elusive nature of the film.

  6. The best year yet for Australian films. In the past I have avoided Australian films which are typically clichéd, contrived and embarrassing to watch. While some of 2006’s fit into this mould, many did not. I saw 19 Australian films this year, 3 times my average, and two (Em 4 Jay and Ten Canoes) I gave five stars. In fact, Em 4 Jay was my favourite film of the year. I consider it my equal favourite Australian film – the other being The Boys.

    Despite Australian films taking my 1st and 3rd places, I don't think I can be accused of any bias - local films also figure prominently in my worst list.

  7. Getting to more film festivals than ever before. I could only take one day off work, but managed to fit in 15 films over the course of 18 days at the Melbourne International Film Festival (my favourite was Climates by Nuri Bilge Ceylan from Turkey). I also saw 9 films at the French Film Festival (the pick was The Child) and fitted in screenings at the Queer, Mexican and Italian Film Festivals.

  8. Getting included on some media lists for film previews. Working full-time, I can’t take full advantage of it, but fit in some advance screenings. It’s great to see a film without being pre-empted by any exposure to previews and advertising.

  9. Last, but not least, was setting up my blog which only happened as a result of many of the above events. I Googled Em 4 Jay reviews and found Alison Croggon’s review on her blog Theatre Notes. By chance it was her husband, Daniel Keene, who is the writer of the film as well as Alkinos Tsilimidos’ previous films Silent Partner and Tom White.

    Alison suggested the blog, and now 10 weeks and 16 articles later, I’m still going in spite of the recent trauma of losing a teenage son to suicide – more on that in the future, perhaps. In relation to my grief, I will say that resuming my film-going after a short break has been very therapeutic. Unfortunately there's not much on at present (that I haven't seen), until ACMI's Focus on Movie Magic season starts next week and the new releases in a couple of weeks or so.
    By then, I'm back at work - d'oh!

Some of my plans for 2007 (other than film reviews) include:

  1. Honing my critical skills (quality over quantity of reviews)
  2. Learn more about the history of cinema to give a broader context of films I review
  3. More detailed coverage of Q&A sessions (I finally bought a digital recorder)
  4. Interviewing one or more local film identities
  5. Writing an article on the significance of film for me
  6. Collaborating on an article on how to develop children’s critical skills by analysis of the films they watch
  7. To further my film network and increase my involvement in cinema

A couple of people have asked me for my obligatory top 10 lists. I’ve never done them before, but for what it’s worth I offer them here. I’m going to borrow a leaf from the book of the venerable Jonathan Rosenbaum and offer my top 20 and bottom 10. The top 20 includes festival and non-commercial contemporary screenings (eg ACMI) as indicated.

[Edit: Links to my reviews or comments added where available]




Em 4 Jay


Hard Candy


The King




Ten Canoes


Happy Feet


The Child (L'enfant)1


Lost and Found




No. 2


Climates (Iklimer)2




A History of Violence


The Constant Gardener


Time to Leave (Le Temps Qui Reste)


X-Men: the Last Stand


Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (Qian Li Zou Dan Qi)


The Libertine




Little Miss Sunshine


Hidden (Caché)


Gravehopping (Odgrobadogroba)3


Walk the Line




Live & Become (Va, vis et Deviens)


Be With Me2


Fallen (Krisana)2


Oliver Twist


United 93


V for Vendetta

1 French Film Festival
Melbourne International Film Festival

Photos: Nick Barkla & Laura Gordon, Em 4 Jay; Gael Garcia Bernal, The King; Ten Canoes

Thursday, December 14, 2006


Penélope Cruz & Yohana Cobo, Volver (Courtesy Dendy Films)

As with any meaningful art form, perception of a film may change over time as one evolves. And appreciation of a director or his works may evolve as one sees subsequent works or even repeat viewings of the same work. I have seen five or so of Pedro Almodóvar's films, enjoyed each of them, but never quite understood the degree of reverence others have for this director. Watching Volver, I feel I can start to pinpoint what troubles me about his work. It's not that I dislike Almodóvar's films but there are significant aspects that fail (or perhaps elude) me.

Almodóvar is a perfectionist and is nothing if not expert in the technical aspects of film-making. In Volver the camera work is beautiful to watch. There are interesting angles and the scenes are well edited. The score merges effectively, seamlessly and unpretentiously into the film's narrative.

The ample use of vibrant colours and lighting are superb, adding stylistically to the film. The colour red is especially bold and recurrent: lipstick, clothing, a car, the cutting up of red peppers and especially the mopping up of blood. Not since American Beauty have I seen a crimson pool depicted in such an exquisitely artful manner.

Spain has a turbulent history that continues to this day. Unlike many of his compatriots, Almodóvar seems uninterested in depicting politics in his films even though he has taken a public stand on political issues. His films are more concerned with the narration of human stories and relationships – dysfunctional or otherwise. They are often populated with characters of ambiguous sexuality and perversity, a defining and intriguing quality of his work.

While Volver is full of dysfunctional and fractured relationships, the only moral dubiousness involves the smoking of a joint by one character and a neighbour who supports herself by prostitution. In trademark Almodóvar style, these incidents are treated nonchalantly without moral judgement.

The film is culturally rich, capturing stylised glimpses of Spanish village life with its superstitions, rituals and idiosyncrasies. It has much in common with my perception of Italian culture and social traits. There was, for example, ample cheek-kissing, which appeared to be exaggerated with a light comedic effect.

Where Volver fails to connect with me is in the crucial areas of plot and characterisation. There are gaping plausibility holes in the plot and characterisation fails in two areas: camp melodrama and gender stereotyping.

Almodóvar is famous for his depiction of strong female characters. While he shuns description as a gay film-maker (but rather, a film-maker who happens to be gay), I suspect that his life experiences have a significant impact on his gender depiction.

Many males, gay and straight, grow up experiencing bastardisation by other males. Just as there are females whose attitude is that 'all men are bastards', there are males who share that view. Volver also seems to project a position that all men (well, at least heterosexual ones) indeed are bastards.

Reflecting Almodóvar’s reported upbringing, males are superfluous in Volver. The only male character with anything approximating significant screen time is a caricature. From his introduction he is clearly set up as a domestic monster. With no ambiguity to his character at all, his chauvinism is rammed home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

In one scene we are subjected to an extreme close-up in which we are forced to feel nothing but disgust towards the character. Were something adverse to befall him, we would feel no pity for him. Another male is absent, but ostensibly of similar character. Almodóvar doesn't risk that we will fail to judge men poorly.

Conversely, the female characters appear to be celebrated not just in spite of, but because of their flaws. A woman can have a 'princess bitch' syndrome, but because she's beautiful, we can more than accommodate this. Or so the director seems to think. There is a flawed lack of both subtlety and balance in the treatment of male and female characters. For me this detracts from the sense of humanity of the director, his work or both, and an obstruction to engaging fully with the film.

Much has been said by others about the preoccupation that Hollywood has with male roles to the detriment of good female roles. It is arguable how many good roles are available in Hollywood for anyone. Putting that question aside, a common stereotype is a set up with entirely male protagonists and antagonists in which females play minor incidental roles that are no more than window dressing.

Almodóvar has been lauded by prominently putting women in strong roles, supposedly reversing stereotype. While it's highly desirable to see women in good roles, I find Almodóvar’s depiction the opposite side of the same sexist coin. The polar opposite of the Arctic is still ice. The opposite of exclusion of one is not the exclusion of the other – it is inclusion.

If Hollywood is sexist and misogynistic, then Almodóvar's work may also be seen as sexist – not misogynistic, but misandrist. His work doesn’t counter a gender imbalance – it merely adds to it. Bear in mind that I believe there is an ubiquitous and overlooked attitude of misandry in western society.

Am I reading too deeply into Almodóvar's films? Maybe. After all, though he is a serious film-maker, he doesn't seem to take himself too seriously. His films seem to be largely tongue-in-cheek, verging on comedy and melodrama. Volver often feels like it will break into slapstick, but fortunately doesn't. This leads to another problem I have with his work.

Almodóvar is a perfectionist with the technical aspects of his films; they look like art house films. Yet the characterisations often appear to be not that far removed from television soap opera with its camp melodrama. Volver, by the way, includes trash TV in the storyline. Coincidence? I think not. More likely he is paying homage to it.

Too much of the plot seems to be intentionally manipulated to follow an implausible pre-engineered destination. It disrupts the natural flow of the narrative. Resisting logic, the film lacks verisimilitude and it becomes hard to emotionally buy into the story.
Some examples of how Volver resembles soap opera:

  • Little Penélope Cruz lifts an impossible weight by herself
  • Shocking incidents in which the participants don't appear sufficiently traumatised (as if the incidents were almost passé)
  • Others who are blasé when they learn of said incidents
  • Melodramatic acting

There are some genuinely good emotional moments, but the plausibility gap renders the flow fractured.

Almodóvar has described Volver as a dramatic comedy. He has intentionally mixed genres, treading a line between Hollywood mainstream, Italian and Latin American melodrama and European arthouse. It tries to be all things for all people, but one element detracts from another.

Interestingly, Almodóvar produced Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labrynth which also mixes genres (fantasy/horror and drama), and also with mixed results.

The previously mentioned American Beauty is an example of a film that more successfully combines drama and comedy. It has other uncanny similarities: both films are concerned with family dysfunctionality, moral ambiguity, perversity, smoking of joints and violent death. Sam Mendes’ film succeeds where Volver fails because of the respective levels of plausibility.

François Ozon is a dramatic film-maker who has flirted with comedy (8 Femmes) but in separate films. While I prefer his more serious films like Under The Sand and Time To Leave, his comedy is more entertaining than Almodóvar’s. I’m not questioning Almodóvar’s skill, but I do doubt his judgement.

Critics have heaped praise on the performance of Cruz. I enjoyed her performance, but don't understand the degree of accolades. It seems to me that aspects of her role were gratuitous, and that she landed the role for three reasons: her popularity, her perceived beauty and her ample breasts.

While Cruz does look nice on screen and her acting is undoubtedly credible, her casting appears to be window dressing that detracts from the realism of the film. The remaining characters look much more authentic. The film is overtly conscious of and preoccupied with her beauty (and her breasts in particular) to the point it becomes tiresome.

There is much to like about this film, but it represents a wasted opportunity. Much of it is shallow, emotionally unengaging, unsatisfying and ultimately forgettable. Like X-Files' Fox Mulder, I want to believe, and am simultaneously intrigued and nonplussed by this unconventional director. Right now, I don't fully believe. I intend to revisit his films to both get a better handle on Almodóvar’s intent and to further test my hypotheses.

Dir, Scr: Pedro Almodóvar Rating: M Duration: 121 min Genre: comedy/drama Language: Spanish Country: Spain Release: 21/12/06, limited Dist: Dendy Films Prod Co: El Deseo Prod: Agustín Almodóvar, Esther García Sound Des: Miguel Rejas Phot: José Luis Alcaine Ed: José Salcedo Prod Des: Salvador Parra Mus: Alberto Iglesias Cast: Penélope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Dueñas, Blanca Portillo, Yohana Cobo, Chus Lampreave

Official website IMDB

In loving memory of my gentle son Abhi Martin 31/8/89 - 14/12/06

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Time to Leave

Melvil Poupaud, Marie Rivière & Daniel Duval, Time to Leave (Dendy Films)

Francois Ozon is one of my favourite French directors. His artistic renditions of human drama contribute significantly to what makes French films so worth seeing. This is his second instalment of a trilogy about death that started with the emotionally enthralling and understated Under The Sand.

Previously he has covered different genres like comedy (8 Women) and thriller (Swimming Pool). While these films have found a wider audience, I find the dramatically subdued exploration of grief and mortality in Under The Sand and Time To Leave much more interesting and satisfying.

Ozon typically uses a female lead in his films. In Time To Leave he uses a male protagonist, Romain (Melvil Poupaud). He appears to be selfish and egocentric – not overly likeable. Romain is approaching imminent death and finds his own way to deal with it. It is revealing to observe how he interacts with people and attempts closure on his ‘final journey’.

The film has a bit of a wandering Zen feel about it. There is no sentimentality and Romain does not burden anyone. It appears that he wants to tidy up loose ends before his passing in an attempt to find peace within himself.

Legendary actress Jeanne Moreau, playing the grandmother, has as strong a screen presence as ever (55 years after her debut). It is only with her that Romain seems to open up emotionally, and we get a glimpse of his warmer side. These scenes were very moving and felt like the emotional core of the film.

Like Under The Sand, Time To Leave doesn’t seem to be making any particular point. It doesn’t proselytise a world view. Nor is it gratuitous, contrived or flamboyant. It is like an essay on the human condition, with great artistry and compassion. There is such understated confidence, intelligence and skill in Ozon’s direction. Highly recommended.

Dir, Scr: François Ozon Rating: MA Duration: 85 min Genre: drama Language: French Country: France Release: 30/11/06, limited Dist: Dendy Films Prod Co: Fidélité Prod: Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonnier Sound Des: Brigitte Taillandier, Aymeric Devoldère Phot: Jeanne Lapoirie Ed: Monica Coleman Prod Des: Katia Wyszkop Cast: Melvil Poupaud, Jeanne Moreau, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, Daniel Duval, Marie Rivière

Official website IMDB

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Catch A Fire

Tim Robbins, Catch A Fire

With Rabbit Proof Fence, The Quiet American and now Catch A Fire to his credit in succession, Phillip Noyce appears to be leaving the blockbuster action movies behind and moving into the realm of serious but still arguably mainstream cinema. These three are all very proficient films with interesting stories and relevant social and political messages. It is noteworthy that they are all based on historical facts.

This style of film-making is much more interesting than films like Syriana or (especially) The Constant Gardener. In those, the directors appear to make a show of promoting a worthy world view, but don’t really seem committed to the political cause they’re endorsing. For me, they felt gratuitous, the director simply cynically exploiting our interest in political conspiracies without necessarily sharing that interest. Whatever it takes to get bums on seats.

It can be a difficult balance for a director. You want to do a story that you know is going to be hard to sell. So you need a big name or two to get the studio on board. But then you’re stuck with a highly recognisable face that everyone knows is American but has to use an Afrikaaner accent.

I was unexpectedly and pleasantly surprised to find that Tim Robbins was completely believable as the South African security interrogator. His accent seemed flawless, and with his excellent acting I was able to buy-in to his character immediately. And I assumed that Derek Luke, who played the protagonist Patrick Chamusso, was African. In fact, he’s from LA and has appeared in Spartan and Antwone Fisher (in the title role).

Apartheid, like Nazism or so-called terrorism, is an easy target for condemnation. It takes little effort to totally demonise even minor participants, even though they may be ordinary people. Noyce skilfully avoids such caricatures. Using effective editing and other cinematic devices, he was able to portray that both the protagonist and the antagonist had much in common. They both had two daughters, and both loved their families and their country. But one became a torturer and one became the tortured.

Noyce’s portrayal of apartheid was very balanced. Robbin’s character Vos was a family man with a job. His family loved him, but at work he was a man to be feared. Torture is a method that has been shown to not work. Both Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantanamo and Noyce’s Catch A Fire illustrate this by depicting false confessions that were actually made by innocents. According to Noyce at the Q&A session that proceeded the film, the confessions made by Chamusso after he joined the outlawed African National Congress (ANC) were deliberately sparse on detail and designed to appease but ultimately frustrate his interrogators.

I asked Noyce if the film was making a statement about current world events, and he acknowledged that it was. It is very relevant to the war on terror and the West’s turning to inhumane methods. “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”, he quoted. Patrick Chamusso was a hero, he said, not because he took up arms, but because he renounced them. The ANC had a policy of not harming innocents, but this wasn’t always followed to the letter. According to Noyce, Chamusso was unsuccessful (he was caught and jailed), because he was careful to follow this policy.

I was surprised by how much I liked this film, and found it the best of Noyce’s yet. Noyce is showing himself to be a deft master of quietly subversive films with commercial appeal, but ultimately they are socio-political commentaries with a strong humanitarian element. Catch A Fire should have wide appeal among both casual movie-goers and the more serious cinephiles.

: Phillip Noyce Rating: M Duration: 101 min Genre: drama/thriller Language: Afrikaans/Zulu/English Country: France/UK/South Africa/USA Release: 23/11/06, wide Dist: UIP Prod Co: Working Title Films Prod: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Anthony Minghella, Robyn Slovo Scr: Shawn Slovo Sound Ed: Andrew Plain Phot: Ron Fortunato Ed: Jill Bilcock Prod Des: Johnny Breedt Mus: Philip Miller Cast: Tim Robbins, Derek Luke, Bonni Henna, Mncedisi Shabangu

Official website IMDB

Monday, November 27, 2006

David & Margaret

With only a few hours notice I received an invite yesterday, courtesy of a Dendy Cinemas competition, to 'an evening with David & Margaret'. It was the last event of the year presented by The Age/Dymocks Books at the Arts Centre (ANZ Pavilion). These events usually have writers speak about their books, and on this occasion it was the promotion of a DVD: "Margaret & David At The Movies Interactive Quiz".

With some hasty phone calls and child-minding arrangements, my partner Zoe joined me after work. At The Movies is the only TV program I make a point of watching. I enjoy the thoughtful, intelligent and passionate discussion and banter of these two, who are this year celebrating 20 years on screen together.

In real estate, of utmost importance is location, location, location. With this in mind and as is my custom with anything film, I arrived early, just prior to the guest speakers. This also afforded me the opportunity, for some brief introductory conversation with David and Margaret, before the masses (about 100) arrived. During this brief exchange, I learnt that (1) Margaret is diminutive in stature, (2) her hands are quite proportionate to her size (and not as large as they seem when she projects them out to the TV camera), (3) she and David are aware of my prolific postings on the At The Movies message board (Margaret commented that it's nice to be able to put a face to a name), and (4) David gives a warm and modest handshake. I found both to be warm and approachable.

Dymocks had a couple of books (including 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, which Zoe bought me for my last birthday) and the DVD on sale. I'm not really into the fan thing, but did buy the DVD to get it signed. I always feel these things are an awkward imposition, but David & Margaret were graciously patient as I took the photo above.

We were ushered into the room, David & Margaret took their seats, and the proceedings began. There was sharing of stories by D&M, interspersed with a small trivia competition. The trivia questions revolved around subjects that D&M were going to talk about. Robert Altman's Nashville is Margaret's favourite film, and David is also fond of his work (he narrated an interesting story from many years ago, in which he spent a few hours with Altman and met Groucho Marx).

With Altman's recent passing on people’s minds, the first question was "which Altman film contains a story that was also the basis of the story in Jindabyne?" [Answer: Short Cuts]. We had another four questions, then, to Margaret's amusement (or was it embarrassment?) a bonus one: "Who had a brief role as Guy Pierce's role's mother in Pricilla: Queen of the Desert? [Answer: Margaret Pomeranz].

Damn! I had so little notice of the evening's event that I didn't get the opportunity to purchase that recording device I've been meaning to get for such events. During the evening, various topics were discussed and later there were some audience questions.

Margaret spoke of her vehement "hatred" of the American studios and their intolerance of competition from other countries. The Americans don't just want to sell their products, they want to destroy every other country's products. David concurred. He described how the American industry lobbied relentlessly against the French system of supporting its local film industry by taxing cinema seats for American films.

With this in mind, and with a brittle local industry, Margaret openly admitted to being biased towards Australian films, passionately declaring “when I go to a cinema, I want to hear Australian voices”. While I think her ideas have merit, I won’t discuss them here. There is a discussion on At The Movies that I have participated in, as well a similar and very recent one at Alison Croggon’s Theatre Notes.

I learnt that David has been a passionate advocate against censorship, particularly when he was a director of the Sydney Film Festival during the 1960’s and 1970’s. He described censorship in those days as “vicious”, and hardly a film was released without a cut, even Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Margaret added that every instance of “shit” was cut; the censors wouldn’t allow it. David narrated an amusing story about the NSW censorship board, but I won’t repeat it here.

On the subject of censorship, David earlier wryly remarked that he was lobbying the OFLC for a new HHC classification – Hand Held Camera.

There was some discussion about the state of the Australian industry, and some of the different stages it went through. David described a small acting role he played when younger, and (to our amusement) how he had turned down another because he felt it didn't suit his image at the time. He said he didn't pursue acting, because he didn't think he looked good enough. I suppose we all have foolish thoughts in our youth.

There was a question about what regions of the world are producing interesting cinema. D&M's consensus was: Korea, Iran, China, other parts of Asia and Spain. I've heard much of Korean cinema, but we seem lucky in Melbourne to get one Korean film distributed in a year, outside of film festivals. I just love Iranian cinema, particularly Panahi (especially The Circle) and Kiarostami.

David described a decline in eastern European cinema since the dismantling of the USSR, with a loss of state-sponsored cinema. And the rest of Europe also appears in decline. Italy and France seem to have lost their edge.

Margaret self-deprecatingly referred to herself as “motormouth”. She referred to how David irritates her, and she irritates him. They don’t compare notes on a film until they’re before the camera. However, as they often go to the same screenings, they sometimes have an idea of the other’s opinion (Margaret came out of The Departed appalled, for example, and couldn’t conceal her disgust and disappointment). David described how he likes to ‘throw’ Margaret with an unexpected comment in front of the camera.

It was a very enjoyable evening in which we witnessed a reasonably spontaneous display of banter and discussion that closely resembled the dynamics that have made these two one of television's most enduring and endearing partnerships.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Catch A Fire Q&A

Phillip Noyce interviewed by Francis Leach at the Nova cinema (Photo: Paul Martin)

I've been thinking lately that I need a digital voice recorder, and damn it, I still do! I would have liked to record Phillip Noyce's interview with Vega FM's Francis Leach and Q&A with the audience after the advance screening of Catch A Fire on Tuesday 21/11/06. The screening was well-attended and there were lots of intelligent questions and thoughtful, insightful answers.

I'm not good on remembering details, but the questions by Leach indicated that (1) he had researched his subject thoroughly before the event, and (2) that he is very intelligent and thoughtful. Noyce made a point of thanking him at the end for his thoughtful interview, saying it was the best interview he's had for this film.

I don't even remember all the questions that I asked (I know it was at least two, though I also had some follow-up questions). I'll do my best to recollect (bearing in mind that I'm always keen to ask film-makers about their work, but then get very nervous when I have the microphone in my hand).

My first questions went something like:

PM: Why now? In making this film now, are you making some kind of political statement regarding the current "war on terror", torture, Iraq, etc?

's answer was quite detailed, but basically he acknowledged that he was making such a statement. "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter", he quoted. Patrick Chamusso was a hero, not because he took up arms, but because he renounced them. He (Chamusso) was unsuccessful because he took it to heart not to harm innocent people.

Noyce discussed the characters Vos and Chamusso, both family men with two daughters, both proud of their country. I noted during the screening of the film various editing techniques (like intercutting) that guided the audience to draw this parallel. But one was a torturer and one was tortured.

Vos was a relatively successful interrogator because he wasn't as physically brutal as most of his peers. But he was psychologically effective, using techniques such as taking a suspect home for dinner (as depicted in the film) or to church. Noyce claimed that there are many studies that show that torture rarely produces any reliable or valuable information. Innocent people end up supplying false information (depicted in both Catch a Fire and also in Michael Winterbottom's recent The Road to Guantanamo), and even the so-called terrorists typically do not provide any information of use.

PM: You have a vast body of work to your credit. Some of it is more mainstream and commercial; some is less so. Which film or films are closest to your heart?

Noyce: Rabbit Proof Fence. There is no film that means more to me than this. Everyone said it couldn't be done. I had so many obstacles that I fought every step of the way. They said it couldn't be done, no-one would want to see it, or it wouldn't make any money. I made it, a lot of people saw it and it was successful, and that means a lot to me.

I did ask a question about what projects he has planned, but his answer was so detailed that without a recording I couldn't remember everything. I recall he has a number of things planned, mostly based on books. I got the impression they were Australian stories, and one in particular was going to be shot (if it eventuates) in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. I, for one, look forward to anything that Noyce may do in the future.

There were lots of revealing tidbits of information, such as the wonderful co-operation of the government in getting access to historic locations (such as the power plant), because they (the government) were keen for this story to be told (many in government were former members of the ANC). Or how one person was an expert on the songs of the ANC, and taught these to the film crew. Lots of things I can't recall.

The whole session went for over 45 minutes, and could have kept going but we had to leave the cinema for a film screening. During the Q&A, I was sitting at the front next to Natalie Miller of Nova Cinema and Sharmill Films. I asked her if the session was being recorded, but the answer was no. D'oh! I've got to get me that recorder. It was a great evening. I'll get my review of the film on here shortly (I thoroughly enjoyed it - my favourite Noyce film yet).

Thursday, November 23, 2006

A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints

Channing Tatum, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (Courtesy Jump Street Films)

What kind of writer reveals his troubled childhood, then directs a semi-autobiographical film about it, using a character with his own name? Bold, foolish or maybe both, that’s exactly what first-time director Dito Montiel did.

Reminiscent of Larry Clark’s Kids, which was set in Manhattan, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints depicts adolescents growing up in a tough neighbourhood, in the NY borough of Queens. For some of these youth, the dangers lay not just on the streets, but also in their own homes. Dito just knew he had to get away.

At first the film is a little difficult to watch visually – the editing and hand-held camera are abrupt. As the story develops and shifts into the present, this subsides and it becomes evident that this was a deliberate device to depict the nature of recollection. As Dito makes the journey across the continent to visit the ill father he hasn’t seen in 15 years, a montage of childhood memories flood his mind.

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is not a light film but is more accessible than Kids. While Kids depicted the consequences of dangers faced by adolescents, this film portrays how one boy escapes from the dangers, but ultimately needs to confront and reconcile his past.

The performances in the film are very strong – the actors are all very credible and the dialogue is saturated with authenticity. Melonie Diaz, who previously appeared in Raising Victor Vargas, beautifully portrayed Dito’s childhood girlfriend Laurie. Rosario Dawson plays the grown up Laurie, and incidentally made her film debut nearly twenty years ago in Kids.

Producer Robert Downey Jr. who encouraged Montiel to make the film, was excellent in an understated role as the adult Dito. The transition of actors between 1986 and the present was depicted effectively. Special mention to Chazz Palminteri, who always has a strong but unforced screen presence.

A film made with a small budget and a big heart, it pays off with a strong, emotionally powerful and worthwhile story. I was surprised how the emotional impact crept up towards the end, as Dito dealt with his past as best he could.

This film is highly recommended for those who enjoy human drama in shades of grey. There’s no good guy/bad guy thing happening here. It’s people dealing with the hand that destiny has given them, trying to find their way. It is full of emotional honesty and plausibility that you can buy into. And don’t leave until after the final credits.

Dir, Scr: Dito Montiel Rating: MA Duration: 99 min Genre: drama Language: English Country: USA Release: 16/11/06, limited Dist: Jump Street Films Prod Co: Xingu Films, Original Media Prod: Trudie Styler, Travis Swords, Charlie Corwin, Clara Markowicz Sound: Paul Hsu Phot: Eric Gautier Ed: Christopher Tellefsen, Jake Pushinsky Prod Des: Jody Asnes Mus: Jonathan Elias Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Shia LaBeouf, Chazz Palminteri, Dianne Wiest, Channing Tatum, Melonie Diaz, Martin Compston, Rosario Dawson, Adam Scarimbolo

Official website IMDB

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Lower City

Wagner Moura and Lázaro Ramos, Lower City (Courtesy Madman Films)

Lower City (Cidade Baixa) is a gutsy and challenging film in the vein of City of God. It has a similar energy with frenetic camera work and it’s depiction of people at the lower end of the food chain. It is set on location in various seaports of northeast Brazil, showcasing beautiful vistas (though rarely in postcard fashion) and urban decay that I found very photogenic. It wasn’t as dark or frenzied as City of God.

Producer Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries, Central Station), director Sérgio Machado and writer Karim Ainouz are regular collaborators. Machado wrote for Ainouz’s Madame Sata (2002), which had a limited release in Australia last year and both Machado and Ainouz wrote for Salles’ Behind The Sun (1998). The style and subject of Lower City had much in common with Madame Sata, though the latter was based on a true character (Madame Sata was a bandit-turned-transvestite performer earlier last century).

Right from the start, sex is a confronting element of Lower City, as we follow the exploits of a lascivious young woman, Karinna (Alice Braga). She is unnervingly blasé about selling herself in exchange for a ride with a pair of men, Deco (Lázaro Ramos) and Naldinho (Wagner Moura) on their boat to Salvador.

Deco and Naldinho are lifelong friends and strugglers. We get glimpses into their questionable background. One is attempting to reform while the other appears to be sinking into bad habits. This is not their only conflict. While they profess their brotherly love for each other, jealously grows over each man’s sexual interest in Karinna.

Deco and Naldinho are of different races. An early scene of a cock fight between a black and a white bird seems prophetic. The deterioration of their relationship was a major focus of the story, and it was well detailed with subtlety. Much of it was by body language such as glaring looks rather than the spoken word. The actors’ performances were all passionate, credible and their characters well-developed and interesting. The film’s depiction of the darker side of a society was a fresh change to the homogenous, polished middle-class of Hollywood.

The film seemed to struggle slightly at times with continuity and editing but remained emotionally gripping throughout. The camera work was mostly hand-held and I found it a bit jolting at times. The exotic music – a sort of neo-Afro-jazz – was a terrific blend of traditional and contemporary and was used to very good effect.

There was a satisfying level of ambiguity in the film, both in motives and the finale. We are not handed everything on a plate for immediate consumption, so we can come out of the cinema ruminating about the experience.

Eroticism is a significant but incidental element in the film, used as a vehicle for revealing aspects of the characters, and how destructive it can be to a relationship. While love triangles are not a new subject, its depiction in Lower City was achieved with depth, originality, realism and emotional honesty. This aspect was a little reminiscent of the scenario in Y Tu Mama Tambien, but in a deeper and much seedier way.

Lower City, despite its depictions of sex and violence, is at heart both gentle and non-judgmental. For me, it didn’t reach the greatness of City of God (to which it is being compared), though it really is a very different film. Serious film-goers will appreciate it for its sensual and raw eroticism, ambiguity, grittiness, sense of humanity and emotional depth. It is well worth seeing.

Dir: Sérgio Machado Rating: R Duration: 98 min Genre: drama Language: Portuguese Country: Brazil Release: 30/11/06, limited Dist: Madman Films Prod Co: VideoFilmes Prod: Mauricio Andrade Ramos, Walter Salles Scr: Sérgio Machado, Karim Ainouz Sound Des: Leandro Lima, Rômulo Drummond Phot: Toca Seabra Ed: Isabela Monteiro de Castro Prod Des: Marcos Pedroso Mus: Carlinhos Brown, Beto Villares Cast: Lázaro Ramos, Wagner Moura, Alice Braga, José Dumont

Official website IMDB

Friday, November 10, 2006

Discussion of Documentary

I've seen two documentaries in the last week: Wordplay and Metal: A Headbanger's Journey. I generally don't see much documentary on the big screen, unless I've run out of other films to see. In these cases I had free tickets, so couldn't refuse.

For me, the big screen works as a supreme medium for losing oneself for two hours on some journey, fantasy or experience. Documentary usually involves learning about a subject, and for this the TV will often suffice. There are two notable exceptions that spring to mind:

  1. Nature, architecture or others where cinematography is prominent, e.g. Microcosmos and Winged Migration (aka Travelling Birds)
  2. Documentaries that are emotionally engaging (as it is said, the truth is often stranger than fiction) , e.g. Capturing the Friedmans.

Many cinema commentators have noted a renaissance in the documentary genre in recent years, particularly since the success of Michael Moore's Bowling For Columbine. I've been ruminating about the reasons for that.

It is my perception that Hollywood has been neglecting the adult market and focusing heavily on the teenage market, for over a decade. So much so that there has been a real vacuum in adult cinema. (This has lead to a boom for independent cinemas.) At the same time, documentaries are being produced in increasingly entertaining ways.

Perhaps it’s a case of emulating Moore’s success – injecting personality, humour, use of celebrity heads, mocking others and opinionation, among other novel populist devices. This trend could be considered an effective means to justify the end - a ‘sugar-coated pill’ - and there may be some validity to this strategy. Some recent examples of this include The Yes Men, Super Size Me and Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 (all of which I enjoyed, by the way).

This is a distinct departure from the more traditional model of focusing on being authoritative, balanced, impartial, incisive, analytical, revealing and explorative. Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey (to be released next week) is this type of documentary. Errol Morris’ excellent Fog of War also fits into this category and is the best documentary that I can recall.

A distinct difference between the two Moore films mentioned is that Bowling For Columbine appeared less partial. Despite his tendency to mock some of his subjects, particularly Charlton Heston (a little in the vein of David Letterman), the film was a genuine exploration of the cause of violence in America.

Perhaps success went to Moore’s head because in Fahrenheit 911, he adopted more of the chutzpah or cockiness he was known for in his The Awful Truth TV series (which screened on SBS), or the earlier film Roger & Me. In Fahrenheit 911, he made no attempt to disguise his contempt for the US leadership and openly aimed at toppling the president at the following election. The film has since been widely criticised for inaccuracy and manipulation of facts, even though much of its content may be valid.

Another form of populist documentary that is appearing increasingly is the ‘competition’ style, like Spellbound, Mad Hot Ballroom and the just released Wordplay. Each of these films follows an almost identical formula: follow some key players that are going to compete in a competition. Interview some talking heads – sprinkle in some celebrities if possible. And culminate in the drama of the actual competition.

The popularity of this genre may be attributed to the reasons discussed above, i.e. the vacuum of adult cinema. I think the popularity of reality television may also be a factor. The formulae of each are very similar, though the ‘competition’ documentary is closer to actual reality than its television cousin. While each of the ‘competition’ documentaries may be interesting on their own, the repetitiveness of the formula becomes tiresome, unoriginal and uninspirational – much like the Hollywood model that has turned away mature audiences. There’s a risk that too much recurrence will backfire on audience interest.

There’s definitely a place for the more entertainment-oriented documentaries, though I think too much subjectivity and populist devices can undermine the importance of their content. For me, there really is no comparison with really well-made, well-researched, authoritative documentaries of the more traditional kind. Think The Corporation, Fog of War, My Architect, Metallica – Some Kind of Monster, Noam Chomsky’s Power and Terror and the soon-to-be-released Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey. It seems that documentaries of this calibre are released about once a year.

If quality documentaries interest you, next week’s release of Metal may be a good opportunity to get your annual dose. I highly recommend it.