Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Week in Review

Christmas holidays are here, so what better way to spend time during these hot days than in a cool cinema. Nothing really stands out for me this week.

  • The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, USA, 2007)
  • The Golden Compass (Chris Weitz, USA, 2007)
  • Coeurs (Private Fears in Public Places, Alain Resnais, France, 2006)
  • Crackers (David Swann, Australia, 1998)
  • Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1942)
  • The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, USA, 1941)
  • Duel (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1971)
  • Paris, je t'aime (Various, Leichentstein, 2006)

The Darjeeling Limited
It seems some people love Wes Anderson's style and some hate it. I tend more towards the former camp, though I've only seen The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Of the two films, I prefer The Darjeeling Limited, which could be viewed as a family drama with comedic elements or a comedy with dramatic elements. In actuality, it is highly comedic, but there is also much dry and understated humour and much drama with strong threads based in reality that we can grab onto.

The characters are great, better than I expected after seeing the shorts many times. Having established the family dynamics between the three brothers, it was quietly amusing to see the understated way Anderson introduced another family member. You'll know what I mean when you see the film. The Indian characters are terrific, especially the Chief Steward. Bill Murray gets an obligatory cameo, and Natalie Portman's small role is sweet.

Much has been said about Anderson's use of colour (highly stylised in The Life Aquatic). India makes a great natural backdrop for The Darjeeling Limited, where colour is a natural element of the social and cultural life. I found the depictions of the country mostly authentic (except for one amorous scene on the train, but which most Western audiences would not pick up on).

Anderson's use of colour, his eccentric characters, the story arc and his creative use of camera angles makes for an enjoyable experience. Many films have come out of the US in recent years that I call 'quirky', which could almost be considered a separate genre. In my opinion, most of them don't work, because the quirkiness is too self-conscious, too contrived. For me, Wes Anderson joins Hal Hartley as someone for whom quirkiness works.

The Golden Compass
There's a novel device that differentiates this film from other children's films of a similar genre - in this parallel universe, people's soul's live outside the body in the form of an animal. Other than that, it's basically a CGI extravaganza of the order of say the Harry Potter franchise or Narnia. None of these films particularly impresses me. I find them too formulaic and predictable, with some hero figure, a victim to be saved and some

The film has an open-ending; it is obviously to be continued. This leaves a slight frustration, though thankfully the film ends around the 90 minute mark. The performances are OK, especially by the young Dakota Richards. Nicole Kidman seems a little it like a fish out of water, but does her best with a fairly weak role while Daniel Craig seems more credible in a smaller role. I found Ian McKellen's easily recognisable voiceover for one of the CGI characters a bit distracting - he has a good voice, but it was hard not to picture the actor, so a less recognisable voice would have been better.

The film is entertaining enough for children (my seven year old enjoyed it), but not recommended otherwise. Personally, I'd like to see more children's cinema like John Sayle's The Secret of Roan Inish (1994) where characters are more nuanced, there's a little more naturalism and less CGI. Or even Tim Burton's fairytale-like stories, that play on stereotype, but usually have some bent twists.

Oh, what a dreary, boring film, and I endured all 120 minutes! This film was one cliché after another, terribly staged (as if were were watching a third-rate live theatrical performance) with stereotypical characters that seemed straight out of The Bold and the Beautiful. People did not respond as people do. The writing was puerile, so there wasn't much the actors could do with the material.

So many devices annoyed me, including:
- the soft camera lenses on 60+ year old women to attempt to make them look gorgeous
- the intrusive and manipulative music
- the sets and setups
- the snow-fall fading in and out at the end of each scene as if it were a stage curtain
- the acting that was like a third-rate stage play (and the sets reinforced that)

Melodrama doesn't have to be stupid. This film lacks any subtlety, is very stupid and is currently on target to just make it onto my worst 10 films of the year (along with 5 other French films!).

Hey, it's Christmas-time, so what an appropriate film for ACMI to screen as part of its Australian Perspectives program. The dysfunctional family get-together at year's end. In many respects, this is a fairly stereotypical Australian comedy, at least on paper. Yet it has an edge and an underlying authenticity that extracted much laughter from the small audience at the single ACMI screening I attended with my family (and my seven year old loved it).

My elderly mother still dreams of getting another caravan and going away on a holiday, perhaps with one or more of her adult children. The start of this film drives home for me why I absolutely refuse to have any part of it. Hell on wheels, that's what I remember it as, and that's how the film depicts it.

Crackers is not a particularly consistent film. There's various flat spots at times, a few stereotypes and weaknesses in the direction. It does, however, have a good heart and some good humour that makes it stand out in the genre. My favourite bit was when the dog gets burnt over the barbeque. My son couldn't control his laughter at that bit.

In spite of some predictability, the film does have some redeeming features, like not using clichés like referring to men as blokes or Aussies. You know, that mythological "Strine" that just doesn't exist anymore (at least, not as films depict it). I much prefer a modest little film like this, with a good heart and some good writing than a big budget poorly written film. Kudos to ACMI for unearthing little gems like this for the Australian Perspectives program.

Humphrey Bogart double at the Astor
I don't think there's anything I can say to add to these two classics: Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon. I preferred the former, and the number of famous lines was awesome. But I enjoyed them both.

I saw this DVD on special somewhere and thought I'd give it a go. I think it was Tarantino's Death Proof that got me thinking about it. On occasions, I've revisited 70's films that impressed me on original release, only to be disappointed at how much they've dated. That happened, for example with Tommy (Ken Russell, 1975). Sure, I still like the music, but the film is cringe-worthy.

Duel was originally made for TV in the US, but was distributed elsewhere as a feature movie - director Steven Spielberg's first - by adding a few scenes to bring it up to 90 minutes length (I believe it was originally 74 minutes). As I recollect, it screened here as the opener to a movie double, and was the minor feature. I saw it at a drive-in theatre, something my family (with four children) found economical. I don't remember the main feature, but Duel always stuck with me. Even though it has dated in some respects, I think it has withstood the test of time and is just as enjoyable now as I remember it then.

Basically, a travelling salesman finds himself the victim of a malevolent truck driver who tries to eradicate him on a lonely desert road. The film consists of a cat-and-mouse chase with various twists. I can't say I'm a big fan of Spielberg, but this film really shows his talent at an early age (he was in his early to mid 20s at the time). What is basically a one-man show holds its own for the whole duration, a real edge of your seat thriller. The camera angles are great, the truck looks genuinely menacing and the twists are believable. The finale is excellent. I got my money's worth with this one.

Paris, je t'aime
Revisiting this after six months or more was an interesting exercise. I think I liked this compilation of short films more than most, for reasons detailed in my original post. Watching the interviews and other DVD extras perhaps enhanced my appreciation, and I liked the film even more this time round. The injured Nigerian immigrant, the grieving mother, the lonely driver, the boy by the Seine - all these stories affected me at least as much as the first time. Even the stories that had a lesser affect (like Christopher Doyle's Chinatown segment) seemed to improve over time.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Calendar updated for Jan/Feb

The Calendar of Film Events (in the sidebar) has been updated with known events (mostly release dates) for January and February.

The Coen brothers' No Country For Old Men opens this Boxing Day - don't miss it!

I'm looking out for American Gangster (Ridley Scott, opens 10 Jan), Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, 17 Jan) and There Will Be Blood (PT Anderson, 7 Feb). Melbourne Cinémathèque's 2008 season opens on 13 Feb - the opening night films have not yet been confirmed. I'll post the rest of the CTEQ calendar soon.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Week in Review

What a week of contrasts: Monday I saw what I consider the year's best mainstream release (by the Coens brothers), to date at least. Yes, even better than Cronenberg's Eastern Promises. And Friday gave me one of the year's worst: Tell No One. My Alliance Française classes are over for 2007 (I've completed 3 terms), so it was good to get three French films in during the week.

  • No Country For Old Men (Ethan Coen & Joel Coen, USA, 2007)
  • The Wild One (Lásló Benedek , USA, 1953)
  • The Big Red One (Samuel Fuller, USA, 1980)
  • Ne le dis à personne (Tell No One, Guillaume Canet, France, 2006)
  • 2 Days in Paris (Julie Delpy, France, 2007)
  • Ensemble, c'est tout (Hunting and Gathering, Claude Berri, France, 2007)

No Country For Old Men
"The best Coen brothers film since Fargo" is the general buzz by Melbourne critics about No Country For Old Men. Utter crap! This film absolutely leaves Fargo way behind and is easily the best film Ethan and Joel Coen have made (at least among the ones I've seen, which admittedly is about half of them). Impatient audiences may prefer Fargo's pace, but this is a much more confident, masterful and mature offering.

The character development is excellent, with some actors playing against type and some with. The film messes with expectations, but in a natural, fluid manner. Like many Coen brothers films, it's about violent crime, and how things often go to plan. And, as someone pointed out to me, the lengths people will go to over money. Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is an everyman who stumbles upon $2 million of drug money and a bunch of dead guys. He makes a choice which leads him down a dangerous path.

The film is kind of like a cross between both of Cronenberg's latest two films, and Eastern Promises and A History of Violence, as well as Tommy Lee Jones' The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. The film is shot in similar country to the latter, and Jones puts in a similarly performance. Those lines in his face just keep getting deeper and he really portrays a weary lawman with conviction. One reviewer compared him to a character in a Sam Peckinpah movie.

The action in the film is thrilling, the violence chilling, but more than that, the suspense is excellent (many comparing it to the expertise of Hitchcock). The dialogue is great, but the confidence the Coens show by restraint, often using just the visuals is a joy to watch. I'm a big fan of Cronenberg, but this film is easily better than Eastern Promises (which I liked a lot), and I consider No Country For Old Men the best mainstream release of the year (thus far). I'm going to see it again when it gets its Boxing Day release.

The Wild One
There's not much I can say about this classic other than I enjoyed it a lot. Screening as part of the Lee Marvin season at Melbourne Cinémathèque, it was great to see Marvin in such a screwball role (a beatnik biker gang leader). How society has changed! This film was banned in several countries in its day for its subversion. Marvin pairs off against rival gang leader, famously played by Marlon Brando, in one of the roles that has made him a legend. Marvin has the best role, though.

The Big Red One
The Big Red One was a personal project for Sam Fuller, who had fought in all the major campaigns depicted in the film as part of the US First Infantry. Armed with this piece of information gave me a heightened appreciation of the heart that went into the film's making. There's a underlying sense of futility of war, and the film's connecting theme at the start and finish is quite poignant. I don't think the film is the masterpiece that some find it, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Tell No One
125 painful minutes. That's what I endured, though it seemed much longer. I didn't have high expectations, but as the film's farce (unintended, I assure you) unfolded, the film pushes suspension of disbelief to a ridiculous level. Basically, it's an English who-dunnit crossed with a very mediocre Hollywood thriller, with a French flavour. The soundtrack is all English-speaking (including Jeff Buckley and U2), so presumably the film was made for either an international audience (think Palace cinemas, and the oft-mediocre French films screened) or the mainstream French audiences who like Hollywood films.

There are so many things to fault in this film that I couldn't even begin to try to list them, but some do stand out. The convoluted layer upon layer of unbelievable plot development and hackneyed characters, the gratuitous nudity, the childhood lovers (at 9, kissing like adults) who have a 15 year age difference in middle-age (he 45, her 30), the stereotypical bad guys, the convenient plot setups, the bad dialogue... should I go on? Nah, just suffice to say that after about 20 minutes I was looking at my watch, and at 45 minutes I was thinking it must be coming to an end (only to be disappointed to see how little time had passed). It just goes on and on and bored me shitless. But, it did have a great car crash sequence on a highway that looked magnificent.

2 Days in Paris
Set in Paris, with a French-born (but now US-based) director/actress and French-produced, 2 Days in Paris is really a US-style romantic comedy, but not puerile like most that genre produces. Delpy has adopted or absorbed some of the Linklater style used with Delpy in both Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, in much the same way that Hal Hartley's influence on Adrienne Shelly can be seen in her directorial effort with Waitress. Yet, with both actress/directors, they have put their own mark on their respective films.

Like Linklater, Delpy has written a story in which there is much dialogue, and much of it is quite sharp and intelligent. The characters in 2 Days are not dissimilar to Linklater's characters, but the rest of the film is otherwise quite different. I was particularly impressed with Delpy's not exploiting her own asset of beauty and looked mostly un-made up for most of the film. It enabled us to absorb her character without that distraction and gave the film a more authentic and naturalistic feel.

The film is a kind of 'meeting-the-parents', as the two lovers finish off a European trip with a 2 day stopover in Paris before returning home in New York. Delpy captures the dynamics of the cultural and language difference quite nicely. Delpy's real life parents (both veteran actors) put in excellent turns as her stage parents. Her father portrays an art gallery owner, and his actual art is seen in the film.

This film is not high art by any stretch of the imagination, but in a genre which typically aims for the lowest common denominator, both in the US and France, 2 Days in Paris is quite a refreshing change. It is quite an accomplishment by Delpy who not only wrote, directed and starred in the film, but also edited and composed the music (we hear her vocals over the final credits).

I found the hand-held camera a bit distracting at times. For the life of me, I can't understand the OFLC's MA classification. The only part that could have been considered offensive in any way was some of the art was sexual in nature. This is puritanism gone stupid.

Hunting and Gathering
I didn't really know anything about this film but went because it is French (and want to practice my listening skills) and because I like Audrey Tatou. Yes, I'm one of those that liked Amélie, and liked it a lot. Perhaps more so because I saw it several months before its release and knew nothing about it. It was so heavily marketed that I think it would have spoiled the magic for me had I seen it later.

I've liked Audrey Tatou in just about everything I've seen her in, and while her performance is OK in this film, I just couldn't get into the film at all. It's the kind of middle-of-the-road French romantic drama that does really well at the French film festival or a release at the Como. It's about young people looking for sex and love, and finding it in unlikely places. Hunting and Gathering goes through all the hackneyed motions, without offering anything new. It's the kind of film the occasional film-goer can go to on a Saturday evening with a lover or with friends as a social event, have a good time and forget before the night is over. The ending looked like it might improve, but then turned feel-good for everyone. That totally spoiled it for me.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Week in Review

  • September (Peter Carstairs, Australia, 2007)
  • Point Blank (John Boorman, USA, 1967)
  • The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, USA, 1962)
  • I'm Not There (Todd Haynes, USA, 2007)

I had heard good things about September, so in spite of doubts, I gave it a go. Unfortunately, it was what I had perceived from the shorts. It just doesn't ring true. The relationship between the two boys just didn't seem plausible, and the aboriginal boy sounded well-educated. The film was OK, but doesn't stand out in any way. In fact, with the crop of local films this year, it kind of blends in to the point of invisibility. I had trouble staying awake for the duration of the film.

Point Blank
Sure, this film has dated, and yes, it's full of cliches. But it's done with such irresistible style and reminds me of the films of Jean-Pierre Melville.

The absence at times of explanations is a strength, and the flashes of memory with minimal device is effective. There's a large number of recognisable faces. If only Hollywood could still make 'em like this.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
I'm not a big fan of the Western genre, and the print at Cinémathèque wasn't the best (16mm, I believe), though acceptable. Yet, I found this film really compelling. There's a great line-up of actors: Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Lee Marvin and others who make up a good ensemble without anyone overly dominating. It would have been easy for any of the above-mentioned actors to fall into cliches, but with good writing and direction, this was avoided. This had me on the edge of my seat - very entertaining stuff!

I'm Not There
I like Todd Haynes as a film-maker. His off-the-beaten-track stories have been good partnerships with Christine Vachon's Killer Films, which produces largely offbeat films with potential for mainstream appeal (like Savage Grace, The Notorious Bettie Page, Far From Heaven and Boys Don't Cry).

I'm Not There is quite a different film to anything else I've seen by Haynes. It is not a coherent story, per se, like say Poison, Safe or Far From Heaven. Rather it is a collage, or a pastiche. Six actors portrays different aspects of Dylan, though none of them uses his name (or his original name, Robert Zimmerman). Indeed, one version is an eleven year old black American and another is an aging Billy the Kid (played by Richard Gere).

The different aspects are brought together in a fairly sporadic manner, with the effect of conveying a sense of the diversity of the man's character, rather than simply aiming to be a biopic. This enables Haynes vast artistic license to explore ideas rather be limited by an interpretation of fact. Additionally, each of the different aspects/actors is filmed in a different style. The cinematography (some colour, some black and white) is gorgeous. The performances are not uniform (but not unsurprisingly), though generally good. I was particularly impressed by Cate Blanchett's rendition. She really seemed to inhabit the role with authenticity.

The music fuses with the narrative very well. Some of the tracks are well-known, others not. But they all blended nicely without being 'in your face'. I am a fan of Dylan's work; his Desire album (1976) had a big influence on me at the time of its release.

I think Haynes was quite ambitious in attempting this project. His film is original and the result is impressive. I thought the film was better than what my enjoyment of it was, because I had a slight problem with the sporadic nature of the narrative. I found it hard to emotionally connect. I also thought the film went a bit longer than needed. If you like the films of Todd Haynes, or the music of Bob Dylan, or films with originality, this one is worth seeing.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Missing Abhi

It's been a year today since my son, Abhi, took his own life. Time may heal, but we miss him and wish he was still with us. We pray that he has moved on to a happier place, and that one day we may meet again. We love you, Abhi.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Catch up time

It’s amazing how time passes. It’s been nearly seven weeks since I posted anything of substance. I’ve been trying to drag myself to writing articles but frankly, for a number of reasons, I’ve needed a break.

I’ve been battling a mystery condition – I think it may be Addison’s disease. Unfortunately, in many cases, traditional medicine can only diagnose a condition once it’s chronic, which is too late (it’s like gluing a vase once you’ve broken it, rather than moving it away from the edge). Fortunately, I have a friend of a friend who is a very switched-on naturopath, and with his help, I am on the road of improvement. My no. 1 priority has been exercise and getting my health, fitness and strength to where it should be (and I’m not there yet), as well as shedding a bit of unwanted fat. What to speak of earlier nights.

I think another factor that has obstructed my writing is grief. Having the time to grieve over the suicide of my son, Abhi, is a kind of luxury that one doesn’t always get. The last few weeks have included various anniversaries of good times we had together just before he left us, culminating in the first anniversary of his passing on this coming Friday. As I start a new job the day before, I’m just hoping I can hold it together OK.

But you know, life is not all doom and gloom. Life goes on, and I suppose I need to pull my finger out and get some writing up here. I’ve been seeing films pretty much as usual. I regret that I’ve not posted reviews of some really good stuff. I wanted to comment about Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, which is an excellent companion piece to his previous A History of Violence. Or Tarantino’s Death Proof, which I liked a whole lot more than many (I don’t think it’s his best work, but it is very entertaining).

I have been to various Australian Perspective screenings at ACMI that included Q&A with the directors/writers/producers. A Sting in the Tale had a very good reception and the conversation after just kept on going. It was particularly pertinent in the wake of the election (I was so relieved to see the end of John Howard. And the Libs lost Bennelong – how good is that?). The Independent is another rare Australian political film – not outstanding, but worthy, and we had a good Q&A with that. Pure Shit also had a screening with a Q&A, and some great dialogue came out of that. That film would make a great companion piece to my favourite film of last year, Alkinos Tsilimidos’ Em 4 Jay. Both films are concerned with drug addiction (yeah, I know, everyone’s favourite topic, right?) but unlike say, Candy or Little Fish, these films are overflowing with authenticity, especially the naturalistic dialogue. I’ve come to see that most Australian films lack authentic dialogue, drifting towards theatricality and caricature.

On the subject of Alkinos Tsilimidos, I have recently interviewed him for the second time. I have already transcribed and edited our original conversation, and have quite a bit of work to complete the second. I’m planning to submit a significant article to Senses of Cinema.

Another good Q&A at ACMI followed Alex Frayne’s Modern Love, a local film that has been doing the rounds on the international festival circuit, but struggled to be seen in Australian cinemas. It’s an unusual film, made on the smell of an oily rag, and the passion of a small group of talented friends. It’s worth seeing if one gets the chance, and while it’s flawed, I suspect the film will create new opportunities for this young film-maker. I met Alex and the lead, Mark Constable, after the film and we had some interesting conversation in the ACMI Lounge. I learnt that Mark had a small role in Tsilimidos’ Tom White.

Unfortunately, I never got to write about Kriv Stender’s excellent Boxing Day before it finished it’s short stint at the Nova. I wanted to give it a plug while it was still on. In my opinion, it’s the only outstanding Australian film of 2007. It’s dialogue was so authentic, the story was so well written, and the acting was excellent. Films like this never seem to get the reception they deserve, though it has had very good critical reviews. This is a film that really should be seen if you get the chance. No other local film comes close. I felt while watching it that it was not just an excellent local film, but that it is a good contribution to world cinema.

A little news I learnt yesterday at an ACMI function is that there will be Focus Seasons in 2008 on Gus Van Sant and John Cassavetes. I’m looking forward to catching up on the Van Sant films I haven’t seen. As I’ve only seen Cassavete’s Opening Night, I there should be several gems for me to catch up on with that Focus.

Lastly, to document what I’ve seen since my last Week in Review, these are the films I’ve seen up to last Sunday. In bold are my highlights. I’m happy to discuss any of them, or anything mentioned above. Or anything, for that matter.



  • Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino, USA, 2007)
  • I Vitteloni (Federico Fellini, Italy, 1953)
  • Nel nome del padre (In the Name of the Father, Marco Bellochio, Italy, 1972)
  • Romance (Catherine Breillat, France, 1999)
  • Brève traversée (Brief Crossing, Catherine Breillat, France, 2001)
  • Sex is Comedy (Catherine Breillat, France, 2002)
  • För att inte tala om alla dessa kvinnor (Now About All These Women, Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1964)
  • Scener ur ett äktenskap (Scenes from a Marriage, Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1973)
  • Tapage nocturne (Nocturnal Uproar, Catherine Breillat, France, 1979)
  • 36 fillette (Catherine Breillat, France, 1988)
  • Away From Her (Sarah Polley, Canada, 2007)
  • Across the Universe (Julie Taymor, USA, 2007)
  • Bitter Springs (Ralph Smart, UK, 1950)
  • Dead Heart (Nick Parsons, Australia, 1996)
  • Modern Love (Alex Frayne, Australia, 2006)
  • Red Road (Andrea Arnold, UK, 2006)
  • Control (Anton Corbijn, UK, 2007)
  • Der Verlorene (The Lost Man, Peter Lorre, Germany, 1951)
  • Die Brücke (The Bridge, Bernhard Wicki, Germany, 1959)
  • The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, USA, 2007)
  • Pure Shit (Bert Deling, Australia, 1975)
  • Die mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers are Among Us, Wolfgang Staudte, East Germany, 1946)
  • Fanfaren der Liebe (Fanfares of Love, Kurt Hoffmann, Germany, 1951)
  • Rosen blühen auf dem Heidegrab (Roses Bloom on the Grave in the Meadow, Hans H. König, Germany, 1952)
  • Interview (Steve Buscemi, USA, 2007)
  • Boxing Day (Kriv Stenders, Australia, 2007)
  • Into the Wild (Sean Penn, USA, 2007)
  • A Sting in the Tale (Eugene Schlusser, Australia, 1989)
  • Bee Movie (Steve Hickner & Simon J. Smith, USA, 2007)
  • The Professionals (Richard Brooks, USA, 1966)
  • Désaccord parfait (Twice Upon a Time, Antoine de Caunes, France, 2006)
  • The Independent (Andrew O'Keefe & John Studley, Australia, 2007)
  • Suspiria (Dario Argento, Italy, 1977)
  • September (Peter Carstairs, Australia, 2007)


  • Dekalog: 3 (Krzysztof Kieslowski, Poland, 1989)
  • Dekalog: 4 (Krzysztof Kieslowski, Poland, 1989)
  • Dekalog: 5 (Krzysztof Kieslowski, Poland, 1989)


  • Mr Electric (Stuart McDonald, 30 mins, Australia, 1993)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Time out

For those that are wondering, I haven't gone anywhere and I'm still here. I've been preoccupied with other things like health/exercise, my son's 7th birthday and getting things done around the place. I have a number of articles and reviews in different stages of completion and should post in the next few days. I've seen a number of films that I'm keen to discuss, but sometimes, one needs a little time out.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

ACMI Focus on Catherine Breillat

Catherine Breillat stands out, not just as a female auteur, but one who embraces challenging material. Her films are mostly explorations of female relationships, stories that depict the transformative and transgressive nature of sexuality. Some find her films obscene, while Breillat herself questions the meaning of obscenity.

À ma souer! (For My Sister, 2001) is a gritty family story about two sisters. Anatomie de l’enfer (Anatomy of Hell, 2004) was particularly challenging for audiences with its depictions of female perversity. Romance (1999) was originally banned in this country, but received an R rating upon appeal. It’s a mystery, then, why her latest film, Une vieille maîtresse (An Old Mistress) has received an R-rating, as it bears little in common with her earlier works.

An Old Mistress apparently marks a new point in Breillat’s career. She claims to be leaving the coming-of-age stories and sexual explorations of her earlier films behind her. Her latest film is a lavish period piece (set in 1835, and based on a novel of the same name by Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly [1808-1889]) whose budget was greater than her previous ten films combined. Says Breillat:

All my previous films were judged nefarious or scandalous, but they did not represent the real me. I think this film really corresponds to my personality. I'm free at last. It represents the me that does not rise up against the world and its taboos. When I'm at peace, I'm actually terribly romantic.

Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou) is a notorious womaniser who has had a torrid relationship with Vellini (Asia Argento) a woman of dubious morals herself. Ryno visits Vellini to tell her their relationship is over and that he truly loves another woman, Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida). The Mistress in the title is Hermangarde’s grandmother and guardian, the Marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute), the woman to whom Ryno must convince of his genuine love for her charge. The film's story unfolds as he frankly divulges the details of his affair with Vellini to the Marquise.

In many respects, this is a fairly conventional period story though, as I have mentioned in previous posts, the French seem much more capable of working in this genre than their English counterparts. While the English get bogged down in staid caricatures and theatrics, the French are able to breathe life into their characters with a much greater sense of naturalness and a fluidity of narrative that more readily engages an audience. I found this with Patrice Chéreau’s Queen Margot (1994), Pascale Ferran’s recent Lady Chatterley and it’s certainly true with Breillat’s An Old Mistress, in which she has assembled a fine cast that both look good and play their parts most competently.

Not unsurprisingly (for Breillat), the film depicts some nudity and sexuality, but, it’s quite passé, hardly any more risqué than Pascale Ferran’s recent Lady Chatterley, which received an M-rating. Maybe the censors (because that’s what the OFLC are) automatically assume a Breillat film is going to offend. This is unfortunate, because this is a beautiful and inoffensive film that should get the exposure that an M or MA rating would allow. The sex and nudity is a very minor aspect of the film.

Part of my respect for Breillat’s films are their ability to challenge my own sensibilities. I find it perverse that a film’s depiction of graphic sex or nudity should cause such moral outrage when violence is both ubiquitous and considered entertaining. And when one looks at a film like Tarantino’s hugely violent Death Proof (due for release on 1 November) with an MA-rating, one wonders about the consistency of the OFLC.

An Old Mistress will probably attract fans of Breillat’s films, and I’m intrigued to know what they think of it. I liked it a lot, though I prefer the grittiness of her more social-realist films. The film will also appeal to an audience that may have previously avoided her work. It is definitely a more accessible film, that will likely appeal to those who liked Lady Chatterley, yet it still has that little extra edge.

Personally, I’m very much looking forward to ACMI’s Focus on Catherine Breillat, which opens tonight with the premiere of An Old Mistress. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing Romance, which I missed when it was released in 1999, as well as other titles such as Brève traverse (Brief Crossing, 2001), Sex is Comedy (2002), Sale comme un ange (Dirty Like an Angel, 1991), Tapage nocturne (Nocturnal Uproar, 1979) and 36 fillette (1987).

ACMI’s Focus on Catherine Breillat opens today and ends on 4 November. The screening dates are also in my Calendar of Film Events (in the sidebar).

Links: Interview re: À ma souer / Interview re: Anatomy of Hell / Senses of Cinema

Photo: Fu'ad Ait Aattou as Ryno de Marigny and Asia Argento as Vellini in An Old Mistress

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Week in Review

  • Das cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1919, Robert Wiene, Germany, 1919)
  • Spione (1928, Fritz Lang, Germany, 1928)
Melbourne Cinémathèque was my only cinema attendance this week. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was accompanied by a newly commissioned live score by the Ang Fang Quartet, while Spione was screened from a brand new print - the film has recently been restored. I have often expressed a sense of inadequacy in critiquing older films, often because I don't have a strong sense of historical context. I enjoyed both these silent films, particularly Spione (in spite of its length), but I didn't feel a strong sense of engagement.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

A film’s adornment with the Cannes Palme d’Or (Golden Palm) brings considerable expectations by an informed audience. When I saw Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, other than knowing it tackled the subject of abortion, and that it had won the Cannes top prize, I knew nothing about it.

The film is set in 1987, towards the end of the communist era, in Romania. Two women, friends sharing a university dormitory are planning something that is not immediately obvious. Gradually, we learn that Otilia is making arrangements for Gabita's clandestine and illegal abortion.

The opening scene’s use of shaky hand-held camera (a pet hate) gave me reservations that thankfully proved unfounded. The cinematography is generally excellent, and the cinéma vérité style produces a strong sense of reality and immediacy as we follow the characters. The apparent use of a digital camera allowed the flexibility to film within small rooms as if one were a fly on the wall witnessing the action. There are fabulous long takes in which we witness the unedited talent of the main actors who display excellent emotions and timing. Mungiu has selected an excellent cast and extracted remarkable performances that are both naturalistic and convincing.

There are various themes that the film covers or depicts:

  • pregnancy as the natural consequence of sex
  • the tendency of youth to disregard the consequences of sex
  • the corrupt nature of communism and how social repression pushes various activities underground
  • how impersonal was life under communism
  • most importantly, the terrible consequences of removing the availability of abortion as a legal option for women

As a youth, I remember my mother talking about the days when women risked death and abortionists risked jail (up to fifteen years in Victoria). Baby boomers and older may recall the name Dr. Bertram Wainer who campaigned for legal access to abortion in the 1960s and ‘70s. It all began in 1967 when he provided emergency treatment for a woman who had a backyard abortion.

Regardless of the morality or ethics of abortion, the social and other consequences of lack of access to it are just too great. This film clearly illustrates this point in a matter-of-fact manner without moralising or proselytising. Mungiu is neither promoting nor denouncing abortion. The film could even be used by so-called pro-lifers to attack abortion. Overwhelmingly, though, a reasonable person seeing this film would conclude that the social cost of banning abortion is too great. Those who would turn back the clock to those pre-Wainer days should go see this film and remind themselves what barbaric options women will take should abortion go underground again.

The only other film I can recall that tackles similar territory to this film was Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake. Both films are very different. Leigh’s film takes the perspective of the abortionist, a caring woman who performs what she considers an important social function for which she is punished. Vera Drake is more stylised than 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. It is a powerful film, but is topped by this newer film.

Mungiu’s film is more realist, and takes the perspective of the pregnant woman (or rather the friend assisting the pregnant woman). The abortionist in the film, Mr. Bebe, is portrayed dispassionately and reasonably objectively. Some may see him as a pig of a man, greedy and uncaring. Some I have spoken to got that impression. I like Mungiu’s use of ambiguity. Mr. Bebe saw himself as a nice enough person and, while I don’t think he was as nice and altruistic as he may have like to convince himself, I do think there was some honorable intention there. Each viewer can ponder this.

The cultural aspect of the film is fascinating. The way individuals interact with each other, particularly on a professional level, affirms many films made in different communist countries at different times, by different directors and of different genres. When one person serves another in a shop or hotel, there is at best indifference or at worst contempt, rather than the service mentality that we expect. Bureacracy is everywhere and with it, distrust and demands for identity papers for nearly every trivial transaction.

The black market is everywhere in the film. People trade with a nod and a wink. Kent cigarettes are high in demand, and people go to great lengths and pay a small fortune to get them (it cost more for a packet of Kent as it did for a hotel room for a night). Perhaps it was an image thing.

Mungiu has stated that his film is not a critique of communism, but just a backdrop for a very personal story – the film depicts the experience of a friend of his. The credits in the film refer to Tales from the Golden Era, which seems at least a little sarcastic about life under communism.

Having seen the film twice (and it was at least as compelling on the second viewing), I found it interesting to note the way the relationship between the two women changes over the course of a day. The closing dialogue was one of the most poignant yet quietly understated endings I have seen in a film for a long time.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a profoundly moving and physically affecting film. It is social-realist film making at it’s very best. This is one of the best films of the year and I highly recommend it.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is screening exclusively at the Palace Como cinema and opens on Thursday.

Monday, October 15, 2007

French Update

Taking up a new language is, of course, not a trivial commitment. I have an ambition to be able to speak French with reasonable proficiency within two years (I started at Alliance Française in April). Term 3 just started and I felt a little flat in Term 2, so I've taken up some one-on-on conversation classes with Stéphanie, a française I met via another local blogger. Coincidentally, I met Stéphanie when she was volunteering at MIFF, and gave her my card, but didn't hear back from her. While I find these classes quite tough and draining (Stéphanie's game is "I don't speak English"), it's forcing me out of my comfort zone and I'm feeling much more positive and confident about learning the language. As time progresses, I'm finding myself picking up more and more from the French films I go to, particularly the differences that occur between the spoken words and the sub-titles.

The Week in Review

  • Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, UK, 2007)
  • I Walked With a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, USA, 1943)
  • Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, USA, 1942)
  • The Leopard Man (Jacques Tourneur, USA, 1943)
  • Money Movers (Bruce Beresford, Australia, 1978)
  • Belle de jour (Luis Buñuel, France, 1967)
  • Les amants criminels (Criminal Lovers, François Ozon, France, 1998)
  • Persona (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1966)
  • Regarde le mer (See the Sea, François Ozon, 52 mins, France, 1997)
  • Action vérite (François Ozon, 4 mins, France, 1994)
  • La petite mort (Small Death, François Ozon, 26 mins, France, 1995)
  • Une robe d'été (A Summer Dress, François Ozon, 15 mins, France, 1996)
  • L'homme idéal (The Ideal Man, François Ozon, 5 mins, France, 1996)
  • Scènes de lit (Bed Scenes, François Ozon, 25 mins, France, 1998)
  • X2000 (François Ozon, 8 mins, France, 1998)
  • Dekalog: 1 (Krzysztof Kieslowski, Poland, 1989)
Eastern Promises
A separate review will be posted.

The Melbourne Cinémathèque screenings of films by Jacques Tourneur
I wasn't over-awed by these three films. I liked them as under-stated horror films, and they certainly looked nice. Maybe I don't have enough historical context to appreciate them fully.

Dekalog: 1
A bright father has an even brighter son who meets a tragic end. Classic Kieslowski. I like the way he raises questions of religion and spirituality but without overtly taking a position. I glean from his films that he is at least agnostic and humanistic, if not a covert spiritualist (quite distinct from religious faith).

Money Movers
An overlooked classic Australian heist film by Beresford that is edgy and captures some of the cultural aspects of the day. Apparently a favourite of Quentin Tarantino who used a similar torture scene in Reservoir Dogs.

Belle de jour
It's a pity I didn't see this before Belle tujours at MIFF this year. I'm keen to catch up on the back catalogue of Buñuel films, and while I enjoyed this one, it didn't overly grab me. It screened as a companion to François Ozon's 5 x 2.

Criminal Lovers
After making over a dozen short films for a decade, Ozon finally debuts with this very chilling story that seems not entirely original. A schoolgirl convinces her boyfriend to murder a fellow student who has been pursuing her sexually, and things don't go according to plan.

Ozon uses the screen masterfully, with beautiful naturalistic visuals, great characterisations and edgy story. It was interesting to see both leads early in their careers who have gone on to become very recognisable - Jérémie Renier (L'enfants and Nue propriété) and Natacha Rénier (Les amitiés maléfiques and La raison du plus faible), and both performances were very strong in this film.

Ozon has shown himself to be a diverse film-maker, and not unlike some of his other films, inserts a light-hearted and understated love scene at the end of what is otherwise a very taut thriller.

Having read Filmnut's nice review of this film, I feel much of this film went over my head and I might watch it again on DVD one day. Visually stunning, and tackles some strong themes of identity and reality.

See the Sea
At 52 minutes, this is not feature-length material for Ozon, but substantial enough to tackle a gritty yet understated story. Visually it has much in common with some of his later films, particularly Under the Sand, and has a dark side somewhat like Criminal Lovers with strong resemblances to some of the dark films of Michael Haneke. There are no comedic or melodramatic devices in this, no outbursts of song. The end is chilling.

The film screened with the other short films by Ozon. Other than a handful of other shorts that did not screen at ACMI's Focus on François Ozon, and Sitcom (which I missed), I have now seen the remainder of Ozon's oeuvre. I definitely prefer his more understated and naturalistic films such as Under the Sand, as well as his dark thrillers like See the Sea and Criminal Lovers. I like the way he includes sexuality, nudity and homosexuality in a non-self-conscious manner and his films have a humanistic aspect that connects with me.

The Short Films of François Ozon
There were quite a few of these films at the one session at ACMI, which predominately explored relationships and sexuality. One or two I had seen previously, perhaps on SBS television.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Week in Review

With the school holidays I've been home - what a great opportunity to catch a few films, including the Focus on François Ozon at ACMI. Ozon's one of my favourite French directors and I'm expecting to catch everything I haven't already seen that ACMI is screening from this retrospective, though I did unfortunately miss Sitcom. It's been a phenomenal week with some really historic compelling films such as Loach's Family Life, Klimov's Come and See and Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days which just gets better on repeat viewings (I've seen it twice now).


  • Une vieille maîtresse (An Old Mistress, France/Italy, Catherine Breillat, 2007)
  • Family Life (Ken Loach, UK, 1971)
  • Ivanovo detstvo (Ivan's Childhood, Andrei Tarkovsky, USSR, 1961)
  • Idi i smotri (Come and See, Elem Klimov, USSR, 1985)
  • 4 luni, 3 săptămâni şi 2 zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Cristian Mungiu, Romania, 2007) - 2nd viewing
  • Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy, USA, 2007)
  • Angst essen Seele auf (Fear Eats the Soul, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Germany, 1973)
  • Gouttes d'eau sur pierres brûlantes (Water Drops on Burning Rocks, François Ozon, France/Germany, 1999)
  • Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, USA, 1959)


  • Vicious Cycles (Len Janson & Chuck Menville, 7 min, USA, 1967)
  • Tales of the Riverbank: Autumn (Paul Sutherland, 14 min, Canada, 1960)


  • Dekalog: 2 ("Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain", Krzysztof Kieslowski, Poland, 1989)

An Old Mistress
Catherine Breillat's latest film, very different from anything she's done previously. A very nice period drama with edge and a separate review is on its way.

Family Life
What can I say about Ken Loach? The man is a fucking genius. This gutsy family drama depicts generational family conflict with such realism and insight. The performances are amazing, and while psychology and psychiatry has evolved in thirty years, much remains the same (and I know this from first-hand experience). The film has an almost documentary-type realism to it.

This was Loach's 3rd feature film after Poor Cow (1967) and Kes (1969). The latter screened at ACMI last year and brought my young son to tears (he loved it, as did I). It's great to see this great director's early work, even if it was on Splodge's small makeshift screen at the Empress of India pub in North Fitzroy. I attended for the first time, and by chance it was Splodge's tenth anniversary. The screenings take place on the first Monday of each month and I can highly recommend it based on this month's experience. The seating is not the best, but it's a terrific opportunity to see some rare cinema. Check the Splodge! site for more details.

Vicious Cycles
This short film uses stop-motion and is dated, but that's much of its appeal. The film in its entirety can be found below.

Tales of the Riverbank: Autumn
A bit of frivolous fun. This is pretty bent as adult entertainment. It was made for children's television. The actual episode (which screened at Splodge) can be viewed below.

Ivan's Childhood
This is an excellent film, and a good companion piece to Come and See. Both depict willing teenage protagonists who join the partisans in the fight against the Nazis. Other than that, they are completely different pieces of work. Ivan's Childhood is in most respects a less ambitious film, but less disturbing and more enjoyable.

Come and See
I don't like war, and I generally don't like war films. Generally. I've got to say, this is one of the most powerful films I have ever seen and possibly the best war film I have seen. I have been debating with others about the horrors of war, and why we should not be in Iraq. This film documents why we should not be sending young men into the theatre of war, except as an absolute necessity. Sure, WWII was different to Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and every other war. They all have their individual differences, but the brutal side of human nature that is unmasked under the cloak of war, and the criminality that is allowed to take place with little consequence, is a given.

The politics of war aside, the film is a very physical experience. It affected me for hours after. Through the eyes of a teenage Belarusian partisan (Flor, played impressively by Aleksei Kravchenko), we get to vicariously experience the horrors of war. When he narrowly misses being bombed, the sound reflects his experience of shell shock, which permeates much of the length of the film. The sound design and music throughout the film is excellent. The cinematography, including much Steadycam camera-work was thoroughly absorbing. The film was visually spectacular, taking in the most amazing landscapes as well as extreme closeups of people's faces that capture the emotions of the moment.

Flor's family (along with most of the village) is butchered in his absence and we become emotionally absorbed in his struggle to come to terms with his predicament, indeed for his very survival. Wading through sludge to an island retreat must have been a gruelling experience for the actors, and it was taxing to watch it.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire, Flor finds himself in another village that also comes to grief (we are informed at the end of the film that 628 Belarusian villages were destroyed under the Nazis). The Nazi contempt for Russians at the time is well-known. This film realistically depicted that and how it physically manifested.

While the story is specific and local, the themes are universal. This is a film that every serious film-lover should see. Absolutely.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
I saw this for the second time and liked it even more. I hope it does well and Kojo films import some more prints. This is a serious and important film that deserves to get good distribution. A separate review is on the way. There will be advance screenings at the Como this coming weekend, and it opens the following Thursday. Go see it! One of my strongest recommendations for the year.

Michael Clayton
I went into this film with hopes but not expectations. I have a lot of admiration for George Clooney in particular, but also Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton. In actuality, their performances are not too bad at all, and for lovers of conventional Hollywood thrillers this film should provide some entertainment with a little more edge than most. Tony Gilroy scripted all the Bourne films, and fortunately the editing and cinematography are not so frenetic as those films.

For me, the film's narrative was too incoherent, and deliberately elusive in a contrived manner. I don't think a film's meaning should be spelt out excessively, but Michael Clayton feels a little too manipulative when we are deliberately kept in the dark. I can almost see the levers and pulleys being pulled. I realise that this is often the norm for thrillers these days, but I don't think it needs to be. This aspect seemed to drag on, contrasting with an ending in which everything came together just too neatly and conveniently in just five minutes or so.

Fear Eats the Soul
This is the second Fassbinder film I have seen. The other was Effi Briest, a very different film. Fear Eats the Soul is much more a social realist film, though stylised and at times just a little surreal (particularly at the start). It depicts an elderly German woman who invites a Moroccan immigrant, 20 years her junior, to her apartment and the subsequent scandal. The cinematography has a rough naturalistic look to it, reflecting the bleak story which, in spite of its genuinely touching moments, has a sense of inevitable doom.

The story is universal, and applicable in all places and at all times. It is as relevant now in Australia as it was in Germany in 1973 when the film was made. The ignorance of society and how racial intolerance is manipulated is especially relevant when one considers the recent racial remarks by our Immigration minister, Kevin Andrews, or past remarks by the likes of Prime Minister Howard or Pauline Hanson. It also reminds me of the scandal that Boris Becker caused when he married a black woman.

Water Drops on Burning Rocks
I found this an interesting piece for Ozon as it integrates different genres he likes to work with. It depicts the seduction of a 20-year old man (Franz, played by Malik Zidi), planning to marry his high-school sweetheart (Anna, played by Ludivine Sagnier), by a 50-year old man (Léopold, played by Bernard Giraudeau). From the outset, Bernard is revealled as a manipulative and self-assured control-freak. He beguiles the vulnerable and keeps them spellbound, largely with his expertise in the area of sexual pleasure. The relationship between Franz and Léopold is very convincing, and Ozon demonstrates much expertise in his depictions.

Things get complicated when Anna turns up on the scene, and the film takes a turn towards melodrama and parody. This might turn off some, but I found it unexpected, amusing and original. There are some twists, some expected and some not. Léopold's former long-time lover also appears on the scene adding to the mayhem, comedy and drama.

It was interesting to see a very young Sagnier (who later appeared in Ozon's Swimming Pool) and Zidi (who was impressive in Emmanuel Bourdieu's very chilling Les amitiés maléfiques). The performances were very good, especially the two male leads. Ozon mostly depicts female stories, and the only two films of his that I have seen with male stories have been about gay men (the other being Le temps qui reste).

Water Drops on Burning Rocks is visually aesthetic and Ozon uses the frame effectively. The entire film is set in Léopold's apartment and at various times the characters are framed individually within windows as if imprisoned. I enjoyed this film a lot. It screened as a companion piece to Fassbinder's Fear Eats the Soul (and was selected by Ozon for the retrospective). The common ground I see between the two films (which are stylistically very different) is the sense of loneliness.

Imitation of Life
This is the first time I've seen a Douglas Sirk film and I can't say I'm a big fan of the melodrama genre. There's no doubt the film was well made, and it appeals to my sense of colour, but the narrative and lack of emotional realism leaves me cold. I'm not writing off the genre or Sirk, as I'm still exploring, and clearly there's something about the director's work that has inspired the likes of Ozon and Fassbinder, so he can't be all bad (can he?).

I was pretty pissed off that this film screened at ACMI from a DVD - the picture quality (ie pixellation) was terrible.

Dekalog: 2
Kieslowski's Dekalog was filmed around the one set of apartment blocks, which was depicted in the Cinémathèque screening of A Short Story About Love earlier in the year. A Short Story is actually a longer version of one of the episodes of Dekalog. Kieslowski is a master of moral conundrums and complexity where there is no black and white, but many shades of grey. Decisions must be made and, while there is no right or wrong, each decision will produce a vastly different outcome. What to do? This is Kieslowski's world, and I love it.

Dekalog: 2 is not as strong as some of Kieslowski's stories, but is still compelling viewing. The characters are all well-developed, ambiguous and mysterious. The film requires some patience to understand what is happening and what is to happen.

While watching this film (well, actually it was made for TV), I felt I could see some parallels with Alkinos Tsilimidos' work. I recently asked Tsilimidos if Kieslowski was an influence. While their styles and apparent world views are quite difference, they both started with documentary which appears to inform their fiction work, and they use bleak social realism in combination with high levels of stylistic devices. Contrary to my theory, Tsilimidos cited the Maysle brothers as an early inspiration to his work.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Week in Review

Last week's screenings were dominated by the last of the season of Czech New Wave at Melbourne Cinémathèque, some truly rare and exception cinema. All these Czech films screened in this season were Australian premieres and all were excellent prints. The other highlight was Haneke's Funny Games, which I watched on DVD. I purchased it after seeing Time of the Wolf as part of the Focus on Isabelle Huppert at ACMI.

I had purchased a ticket to see Destricted at ACMI, but didn't get to see. I've heard that there's only a couple of segments of this omnibus film worth seeing, most notably Larry Clark's, so hopefully I'll get to see it on DVD some day (or maybe ACMI will re-screen it).

  • Angel (François Ozon, UK/Belgium/France, 2007)
  • The Nanny Diaries (Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini, USA, 2007)
  • Prípad pro zacínajícího kata (A Case for a Young Hangman, Pavel Jurácek, Czechoslovakia, 1969)
  • Konec srpna v Hotelu Ozon (Late August at the Hotel Ozone, Jan Schmidt, Czechoslovakia, 1967)
  • Hairspray (Adam Shankman, USA, 2007)
  • Postava k podpírání (Josef Kilián, Pavel Jurácek & Jan Schmidt, 38 mins, Czechoslovakia, 1963)
  • Funny Games (Michael Haneke, Austria, 1997)
François Ozon is one of my favourite French directors, who produces films of many genres. I'm really looking forward to the ACMI retrospective of his work starting later this week. Ozon makes subtle and understated yet compelling social dramas like Sous le sable (Under the Sand, 2000) and Le temps qui reste (Time to Leave, 2005) that are reflections of mortality that really resonate with me.

Swimming Pool (2003) is a more conventional thriller with a twist that shares some themes with Ozon's latest effort, but is of a completely different genre. Both films explore the life of a writer, but while Swimming Pool is a contemporary story somewhat grounded in reality, Angel is a melodramatic fantasy set 100 years ago. It's also Ozon's first English language film - quite a daunting challenge.

Angel Deverell comes from a lower middle class family but is passionately ambitious to succeed as a writer of melodramatic novels. The film takes on the mood of one of her novels - the melodrama is evident from the opening scene with the choice of music. While the press notes for the film give no hint that the director's intent of fantasy, I can't take it any other way. Angel succeeds at a very young age, beyond her wildest dreams. The narrative is almost dream-like. I have no experience of Douglas Sirk's films, but from what I've read, the film appears to be a homage to his work.

The production of the film is lush and the film looks beautiful. The period reproduction is very competent, but the genre of film won't appeal to everyone. Ozon clearly has an interest in women's stories and these often have appeal regardless of gender. I suspect the melodrama of Angel is likely to appeal more to women than men, and to lovers of English period dramas.

The Nanny Diaries
The husband and wife team that brought us the innovative American Splendour (2003) has worked together again for a more conventional comedy with The Nanny Diaries. The film satirises a tendency among some of the extremely wealthy of Manhattan's Upper East Side who, courtesy of their husband's huge income, can afford to both not work and pay others to raise their children.

Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney play Mr. & Mrs. X, Scarlett Johansson plays Annie the Nanny and Nicholas Art plays Grayer, the X's young son. The performances are acceptable enough, and there is some genuine humour, but the writing felt clumsy to me, and fell into stereotypical cliché. Johnasson has potential with comedy, but while the clumsiness of her role in Woody Allen's Scoop melded reasonably with the narrative and style of the film, it doesn't quite gel in this film. Maybe that's a weakness in the direction or editing - I couldn't really tell. It just didn't quite work for me.

There wasn't enough material to engage an audience for over 90 minutes and the film would have benefited by having some 15 minutes cut to bring it to this length. The film basically is a single joke that gets too repetitious as time wears on. The aspect that bothered me the most was a convenient and emotionally tidy ending. This may not concern a more conventional audience, which should find this enjoyable enough. Good for a bit of light but forgettable entertainment.

A Case for a Young Hangman
Virtually all of the Czech New Wave films screening at the recent Melbourne Cinémathèque season seem to have a fixation on indirect criticism of the totalitarian regime of the day. A Case for a Young Hangman is based on Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and uses heavy satire and surrealism that also borrows heavily from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, particularly the appearance of a clothed rabbit replete with pocket-watch.

The film also recalls Orson Welle's The Trial (1962), reflecting a frustration with government incompetence, but takes absurdism and symbolism to a more extreme level. The film is structured like a dream, removing the need for narrative coherence and allowing the story to jump from one scene to another seemingly at the director's whim. Combined with visual inventiveness and restrained humour, this sucks the audience down a rabbit hole and is thoroughly engaging.

These devices are effective in conveying the frustration of living in a madly bureaucratic state. Krzysztof Kieslowski ran foul of the authorities by his direct and realist approach to criticism of the authorities in his native Poland, so the indirect methods employed by some of the Czechs (as in A Case for a Young Hangman) are quite novel.

Josef Kilián
This short film made an excellent companion piece to A Case for a Young Hangman. It also employs absurdism, but to a lesser extent than A Case for a Young Hangman. It is also highly satirical and uses irony to humiliate the craziness of bureaucracy.

Our hero stumbles across a cat rental store and on a whim hires. Having recently seen the realist depictions of communist life in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the director's mocking of bureaucracy is evident. A disinterested shop-girl asks for ID, takes the money and warns there's a steep penalty for late returns. The cat is mangy, nothing like the one asked for, and our hero - resigned to the uselessness of complaint - takes it for a day. He returns the next day but the shop is empty and no-one knows anything about it. The film then follows our hero as he desperately seeks the shop.

Late August at the Hotel Ozone
One of the finest post-apocalyptic films I have seen, that possibly inspired Haneke's Time of the Wolf. It has little of the humour of the previous Czech films. There is little dialogue and the story takes a while to unfold. We follow a troupe of young women being led by another old enough to be their mother. None of their identities is evident. Gradually we learn that they are some of the last remaining people on Earth (or at least, in the country). The older woman leads them across the country in search of other people, and particularly men.

Like Haneke's film, there is some fairly graphic violence, which works effectively in the context of the film. It also recalls Golding's novel, Lord of the Flies. The ending is full of irony and tragedy, but handled with subtlety. Great stuff.

Funny Games
Michael Haneke is one of my favourite directors. He uses bleak social realism to convey horror stories of sorts - thrillers, emotional dramas, post-apocalyptic stories and so on. Funny Games predates by several years Haneke's earlier efforts, Time of the Wolf (2003) and Hidden (2005), but explores common themes. Like Time of the Wolf, there is a holidaying family in crisis and like Hidden, there is an examination of the nature of reality and manipulation through the medium of film. Funny Games is particularly audacious in its cheeky self-reference, in which one of the antagonists directly addresses the audience.

It was interesting to see the recently departed Ulrich Mühe (from The Lives of Others). Apparently filming on an American remake (with Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as leads) directed by Haneke itself has recently completed and is due for release next year. It will be interesting to compare versions.

In the DVD extras, Haneke says this film is the only one in which he deliberately provokes the audience. It is indeed a chilling story, and not for the faint at heart - my partner was scared shitless! I have yet to see a Haneke film that I have found less than excellent.


This films has wide distribution and much has been written about it. I went with the family, who enjoyed it less than I. Three words sum it up: lots of fun. The film is full of light uplifting energy, and it would have benefited by cutting 15 - 30 minutes to keep up the initial momentum.

Michelle Pfeiffer is looking painfully and excruciatingly thin and appears to be deforming herself with cosmetic surgery. John Travolta has a clumsy but effective role, John Waters has a hilarious cameo and Nikki Blonsky largely carries the film's success on her effervescent performance. The rest of the cast were good, especially Jerry Stiller (George Constanza's father in Seinfeld), Amanda Bynes and James Marsden, though I found Queen Latifah as Motormouth Maybelle a bit flat. Good clean entertainment, with some nice choreography (by the director!). I'd like to see the John Waters original.