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