Sunday, October 29, 2006

Children of Men

The social, economic and political upheaval depicted in The Children of Men is quite conceivable. We are not given any explanation why the world has been transformed, though we get hints of nuclear devastation and turmoil in other parts of the world from newspaper headlines posted on walls and in the street. Also not divulged is why no children have been born for over 18 years.

The sparse elucidation in the film is not a weakness; it is in fact a potent tool that is used in tandem with other devices to create a powerful effect – that of mayhem, confusion and dislocation. These are all normal side-effects of war, civil or otherwise. People are bundled along, herded like cattle, running in fear of things heard but not necessarily seen. Explanations are not handed out on a platter and this adds to a freshness that is a welcome departure from the mindlessness of most Hollywood movies. After all, the citizens of the planet do not themselves know the reasons behind female infertility, and we get to share the confusion. Mystery in cinema can be (and in this film is) a good thing.

Politically, it’s not too hard to foresee such a bleak future, because aspects of it exist right now: Guantanamo, Mamdouh Habib, Abu Ghraib, refugee camps and detention centres are words that immediately spring to mind. The dehumanising of refugees and the association of them as being on a par with terrorists is something regrettably we have already seen in our lifetime.

The camera work is excellent, with the use of wide angles and sweeping takes that follow the protagonists as if the camera operator – and we – are an embedded journalist in a real-life war situation. At one stage, we even see specks of ‘blood’ on the camera, adding to the sense of immediacy. The film is quite relentless from start to finish, creating a solid feeling of tension and anxiety. The cinematography is also used to great effect, creating a sense of real bleakness. There is great attention to detail in various scenes depicting urban and industrial wastelands, adding to a tangible sense of chaos and anarchy.

Alfonso Cuarón has developed an impressive body of work to his credit with films as diverse as this, Y tu Mama Tambien and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Y tu Mama Tambien remains my favourite of his works, though Children of Men shows a great deal of risk and innovation that deserves recognition. In spite of this, the film had some reasonably significant faults that cannot be overlooked.

In a landscape that is so miserable, where people’s lives are so grim, the use of pop music was often inappropriate, mostly in the first half of the film. I really liked the music, but its use detracted from the consistency of the film. It seemed to reveal a slight unwillingness by the director to completely commit to the risks he took in portraying such a bleak futuristic view.

There were a number of inconsistencies. The most noticeable was that it was night time when the car was being pushed downhill to escape the farmhouse. By the time the car reached the bottom of the hill (maybe a minute later), it was light. And why push-start the car at the bottom of the hill? It made no sense, when it could have been started while coasting down the hill.

Another distraction was the contrived use of hand-held camera with what I call ‘designer shake’ which I first noticed some years ago in TV’s NYPD Blue. Hand-held cameras can be used to good effect by creating a sense of immediacy, that you're there amongst the action. Generally it was used effectively in this film, but there was no need to accentuate the shaking. This was particularly so in the first half of the film during the relatively quiet scenes, and for me it made it an effort to connect with the film.

For some time I have been observing a fad for UK films to cast one American actor or vice versa. This appears to be a device used primarily for marketing purposes. Sometimes its use is so contrived that it detracts from a film, such as Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors. In other films it has worked well, such as Helena Bonham-Carter in Fight Club. While I am a fan of American actor Julianne Moore, her appearance in this film seems to be neither a positive nor a negative in this respect.

Michael Caine’s character looked good on the screen, but seemed cartoonish, as if from V For Vendetta. His part was overplayed, like Geoffrey Rush's in Candy. Other characters had a similar but lesser effect. Another contrivance is the popular use in British cinema of the term ‘wanker’. For god’s sake, they got this term from Australians, and now it’s used much more than we ever have. It gets a bit tedious.

The near-religious symbolism of the child with Joseph- and Mary-like characters was used to powerful emotional effect, but was then wasted with the implausibility that an entire troop of soldiers will let them pass unchecked and get away. The ambiguity of the ending was, however, effective. The arrival of ‘Tomorrow’ gives hope without a clear outcome, reminiscent of Charlton Heston in The Omega Man (1971). Interestingly, the plot of The Children of Men has a lot in common with this earlier film.

Overall, the film is powerful, engaging, innovative, intelligent, visually stunning and exciting. It conveys an interesting story that includes important political commentary. Its failings are not fatal, but detract from what could otherwise have been a really important work. It is definitely worth seeing for its innovation alone.

Dir: Alfonso Cuarón Rating: MA Duration: 100 min Genre: adventure/science fiction/thriller Language: English Country: UK Release: 19/10/06, wide Viewed: 28/10/06, Palace Dendy Brighton Dist: UIP Prod Co: Strike Entertainment Prod: Hilary Shor, Marc Abraham, Tony Smith, Eric Newman, Iain Smith Scr: PD James, Alfonso Cuarón Sound Des: David Evans Phot: Emmanuel Lubezki Ed: Alex Rodriguez, Alfonso Cuarón Prod Des: Jim Clay, Georffrey Kirkland Mus: Becca Gatrell Cast: Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlie Hunnam, Claire-Hope Ashitey

Official website IMDB

Monday, October 23, 2006

Fast Food Nation

Richard Linklater has made a niche for himself with a diverse range of highly original, intelligent and interesting films that are largely dialogue driven. Some are idiosyncratic variations of popular genres like Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Waking Life was cutting edge and in a genre of its own while School of Rock was a mainstream hit in the teenage comedy genre.

In a sense, Linklater is like Michael Winterbottom. Though they have very different styles in film-making, both tackle vastly different projects from one film to the next, creating impressive bodies of work. Any Linklater film is going to be anticipated by fans of his work, and Fast Food Nation does not disappoint.

Based on Eric Schlosser’s non-fiction book of the same name, the film is a fictionalisation co-written by Schlosser and Linklater. It opens to smiling families at a Mickey's Burgers store. The remainder of the film goes behind the scenes to reveal the misery and exploitation that goes into each burger.

The structure of the film is unconventional. It is complex, depicting a number of social, economic and human issues with much compassion. Though the characters’ paths cross (or come close to it) at different stages, the film is not exactly an ensemble piece. The different stories don’t join up in a contrived manner we often see in this genre. Sections are pieced together with a solid line up of actors, such as Patricia Arquette, Bruce Willis, Ethan Hawke and Kris Kristofferson, each of whose characters are interesting enough to carry the film alone.

The truth behind the burgers we eat is revealed through marketing executive Don Henderson (Greg Kinnear) as he attempts to discover the source of faecal contamination of the burgers. Amber (Ashley Johnson) is the conscience of the film. As she discovers the ethics in producing the burgers she smilingly dispenses to the public, we share in her transformation.

Catalina Sandino Moreno was terrific as the Colombian drug mule in Maria Full of Grace and again shines in this film as the desperate and indignant Mexican illegal worker. Paul Dano’s role as a Mickey’s worker is small but much more interesting than his performance in the mediocre Little Miss Sunshine. Though the story is American, there's relevance to Australia with the proliferation of fast food chains, the new IR laws, and cheap imported labour.

There were lots of interesting small roles played by Avril Lavigne, Luis Guzman, Lou Taylor Pucci and others. The film is largely character-driven but be warned that there are some gruesome scenes towards the end – scenes that should and need to be seen. The film is almost a companion piece to Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me. Whereas Super Size Me was an entertaining documentary, it wasn't as hard-hitting as this fictionalised semi-satirical look behind the scenes. Has anyone else noticed that McDonalds is blitzing us with marketing, just as they did in the lead up to Super Size Me? Fast food companies are afraid of this film, and should be. It is well worth seeing.

Dir: Richard Linklater Rating: M Duration: 114 min Genre: drama Language: English Country: USA Release: 26/10/06, wide national Viewed: 23/10/06, Kino, RRR advance screening Dist: Dendy Films Prod Co: Recorded Picture Company Prod: Jeremy Thomas, Malcolm McLaren Scr: Eric Schlosser, Richard Linklater Sound Des: Martin Lopez Phot: Lee Daniel Ed: Sandra Adair Prod Des: Bruce Curtis Mus: Friends of Dean Martinez Cast: Greg Kinnear, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Patricia Arquette, Bobby Cannavale, Ethan Hawke, Kris Kristofferson, Wilmer Valderrama, Bruce Willis, Luis Guzman, Paul Dano, Ashley Johnson, Avril Lavigne, Esai Morales, Lou Taylor Pucci
Official website IMDB

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Christine Vachon season

Christine Vachon has produced a great body of work, and she is being recognised with a season running at ACMI until Sunday 29/10/06. I saw Mrs. Harris (2005) on opening night last Thursday. Directed by Phyllis Nagy, starring Annette Bening and Ben Kingsley. I would not have known that it was made for TV (by HBO Films) had it not been announced.

Based on a true story, it covers a society murder in 1980 of Dr Herman 'Hy' Tarnowner (Kingsley) by Jean Harris (Bening). The story is not in chronological order and there are some unusual if not inconsistent devices (some quite comical). While not an exceptional film, it is worth seeeing due to its unusual nature.

Yesterday I saw
Kids (1995) with the 30 minute short Oreos With Attitude (1990). Oreos (directed by Larry Carty) was a very entertaining and subversive parody on race in New York City. A black couple are ambitious social climbers who make all the 'right' moves. They decide to adopt a white child (at any cost) because they don't want to risk having a child of their own who has a 30% chance of being darker than themselves. If white couples can adopt a black child, why can't they adopt a white child? The film details hypocrisy, deceit and superficiality in a very amusing way.

Kids was the first film by Larry Clark (of Ken Park fame) in which young actors Chloe Sevigny and Rosario Dawson also debuted. It was a grim but extremely honest portrayal of teenagers reckless about sex, drugs and violence, taking place in one day. Telly considers himself a stud and targets young virgins to charm and unleash his prowess. What he doesn't realise is that he is HIV infected. We know this because Jennie's (Sevigny) sole sexual encounter was with him, and she has been diagnosed positive.

It is a both gruelling and compelling two hours during which time we see Telly's and his buddy Casper's exploits. The ease with which Telly is able to seduce girls is realistically shocking, and should be compulsory viewing for teenagers' sex education (better than any educational video). The dangerous consequences of indisriminate sex and drugs is graphically portrayed.

It is a very bold film by the director as well as his young cast. Due to the OFLC's refusal to classify
Ken Park, we haven't had the opportunity to see this film in Australia. But based on the director's work on Kids, I can see no reason why mature adults should not be able to see adult cinema of serious artistic merit.

I had just enough time after
Kids to take a walk around a very crowded Federation Square among the Diwali (Indian Festival of Lights) celebrations before going back into the dark of ACMI's Cinema 1 to see I Shot Andy Warhol (1996, directed by Mary Harron). This is yet another dark story, in which Lili Taylor takes centre stage as Valerie Solanas, a 60s radical lesbian advocating hatred towards men in her SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto. She wanted Andy Warhol to produce a play she wrote. After being continually ignored, humiliated, and with her mental state declining, she shot him.

Taylor's performance was excellent, really inhabiting her role. I confess to not knowing much about Warhol, but Jared Harris played a good likeness. During the film, I couldn't help but think that this was like a female version of
Factotum (a fictionalised misognynist Charles Bukowski). It was only later that I remembered that Taylor also played a significant role in Factotum.

None of the above films was perfect but definitely worth seeing. They are not subversive cinema
per se, but they depict subversive characters or stories. They are all truly independent cinema, with originality, artistic merit and authenticity. In other words, not the sort of thing the serious cinemaphile has access to on the big screen on a regular basis (even at the so-called indendent cinemas). I would have liked to have seen The Notorious Bettie Page (it screened on Friday), but will hopefully catch another couple next weekend when the season comes to a close. Films still to be screened: The Safety of Objects, Office Killer, Velvet Goldmine, Go Fish and Swoon.

Saturday, October 14, 2006


This film is outrageous, offensive and sure to have decent-minded audiences storming out of cinemas in disgust. However, those who don’t mind a cinematic challenge can stray outside their comfort zones and enjoy what amounts to a whole lot of fun.

Shortbus, the name of a fictional New York 'alternative' club, is an unusual film. It has a blend of audacity, fun, frivolity, seriousness and drama that the broad-minded may find immensely entertaining but will disgust others. Though perverse at times, it is refreshingly different to what is normally on offer. The story has substance and includes interesting characters, including a sex therapist who has never had an orgasm, her frisky husband, a dominatrix who can’t connect emotionally and a gay couple who consider introducing a third man to their relationship. I don’t agree with the theme of sexual liberation, but felt it was worth depicting.

The distributor claims Shortbus contains the most explicit sex in a film with an ‘R’ rating. As I recollect, Baise Moi (French for “fuck me”) contained much more graphic (and violent) sex. Its initial ‘R’ classification was subsequently revoked, a matter of controversy at the time. However, there really is no comparison – Baise Moi was a trashy porno flick (which wasn't even listed on IMDB) and Shortbus is superior in every respect.

During the screening, I found myself asking “why are we as a society so easily offended by sexuality, yet we line up en masse to see people shot and blown to pieces?” We've become so blasé about violence but shy away from carnality. The film depicts a fair bit of sex and it is very much 'in your face'. But it was not the major part of the film – there is a whole lot more going on regarding relationships, hang-ups and neuroses.

The film is set in New York which always looks good on the big screen. There is some novel animation that is used to good effect, especially during the opening and closing sequences. The film could have benefited from some tighter editing (ten minutes could have been cut towards the end), but was mostly quite snappy.

Several films have been lauded in recent times for being quirky, like Chumscrubber, Brick and Little Miss Sunshine. I found those films quite boring and contrived, but Shortbus is truly quirky, original and interesting. If you’re feeling just a little bit adventurous, go see this film before the killjoys lobby the OFLC to have its classification revoked. It’ll have you laughing your head off one minute, and crying the next.

Dir, Scr: John Cameron Mitchell Rating: R Duration: 102 min Genre: drama/comedy Language: English Country: USA Release: 9/11/06, limited Viewed: 13/10/06, Cinema Nova, distributor's advance screening Dist: Hopscotch Prod Co: Q Television, Process Prod: Howard Gertler, Tim Perell, John Cameron Mitchell Sound Des: Benjamin Cheah Phot: Frank G. DeMarco Ed: Brian A. Kates Prod Des: Jody Asnes Mus: Yo La Tengo Cast: Sook-Yin Lee, Paul Dawson, Lindsay Beamish, PJ DeBoy, Raphael Barker, Jay Brannan, Peter Stickles, Justin Bond

Official website IMDB