Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Week in Review

It's almost a relief to be doing my weekly review, after the 19 day intensity of MIFF. I'm going to try to reduce the number of films I see (seriously, I find it hard not to go to more) as time is really scarce, and I'm not putting the time into my French studies that it really needs. I'm roughly planning to get to France in a year or two, for a visit at least.

  • Ratatouille (Brad Bird, USA, 2007)
  • Love Serenade (Shirley Barrett, Australia, 1996)
  • The Home Song Stories (Tony Ayres, Australia, 2007) + Q&A
  • Everynight... Everynight (Alkinos Tsilimidos, Australia, 1994)

I generally like Pixar films, and Ratatouille looks like it will be a very popular film among the young 'uns. I was at the Australian premiere at ACMI, and many of the invitation-only audience were children (we received our invite on account of our suggestions for children's programming). I've never heard my six year old son laugh so unrestrained in a cinema before.

Pixar films are gorgeous to look at. The visual in Ratatouille are simply stunning, and the characters are mostly interesting. While the film is sure to be popular with the school holiday crowds (its September 6 release is a couple of weeks before the start of term holidays), I find the story a bit tired. It relies on stereotypes and over-used plot devices that, like the previous Cars, are just a bit too safe. A degree of narrative inventiveness and darkness that manifested in say, The Incredibles and Finding Nemo are nowhere to be seen in this film. Some aspects were too predictable and the 'but wait, there's more' dragged the film on way too long for a young audience (and an adult one, too, for that matter).

Children's film is a subject I care about, and while Ratatouille is entertaining and bound to be popular, I also feel it's a wasted opportunity to nurture children's minds. Rather it seems to be grooming them for the mediocrity that Hollywood pumps out for older generations. To the film's credit, it avoids the unnecessary (and for me, distracting) use of celebrity voices, using mostly 'unknowns', though Peter O'Toole is used effectively as the food critic.

ACMI director Tony Sweeney introduced the film, which was preceded by a seven-minute short called Lifted as well as a preview of Pixar's blockbuster for next year, about a robot called Wall-E. Lifted depicts an alien kidnapping gone wrong, and had the kind of edge that Ratatouille lacked.

Here's some tidbits about Ratatouille that may be of interest (courtesy of Disney):
  • The Pizza Planet Truck, which first made an appearance in Toy Story, has made a cameo in nearly every Pixar film. In Ratatouille, the infamous Pizza Planet Truck can be seen on a bridge over the Seine during the scene in which Skinner is chasing Remy.
  • The number A113, which refers to Brad Bird and John Lasseter's former classroom at CalArts, makes an appearance in every Pixar film. A113 also appears in Ratatouille, but you'll have to look carefully for yourself to find it.
  • Pixar's official "Good Luck Charm," actor John Ratzenberger, makes another appearance in Ratatouille as the head waiter, Mustafa. John's voice has appeared in every Pixar movie.
  • The character Bomb Voyage from The Incredibles makes two appearances in Ratatouille. He appears as a mime on the bridge by Notre Dame when Linguini and Colette skate past. Bomb Voyage's second appearance is the front-page headline and photo on the newspaper Colette is reading with the Solene Le Claire review.
  • "Bar Des 7 Chanceux" is a storefront seen on the streets of Paris. It is named for the "Lucky 7 Lounge," a homemade secret lounge inside Pixar Animation Studios.

Love Serenade

Wow, how did I ever miss this little gem on first release? While overlooked for the minor AFI award categories it was nominated in, it won the Golden Camera at Cannes 1996. It's the first film by Shirley Barrett, whose only other feature film (Walk the Talk) was made four years later, but appears not to have been released locally.

I was encouraged to see
Love Serenade on someone else's recommendation. It has a number of features and devices that I usually deplore in Australian films yet manages to use them to great effect. For example, the soundtrack of 'easy listening' music (with the likes of Barry White and Tom Jones) is in your face, yet like the Abba music in Muriel's Wedding, it works well with the narrative. The strength of the film is in the intelligent script (also by Barrett) and excellent character development.

Two lonely sisters fight for the attention of a city radio announcer that has moved to their quiet Riverland town. These three are the main characters, though the local Chinese restaurant owner (for whom the younger sister, played by Miranda Otto, works) is a very curious secondary character.

The film's visuals are very nice, the acting is spot on, and the quirkiness of the characters works a treat. The dialogue is sharp and original, with an underlying honesty that resonates and engages. The end is so abrupt and unexpected; it completely took me by surprise. The final shot leaves a sense of the bizarre. This is not mind-blowing cinema, but is a good example of low-budget Australian cinema done very well. This film is well-worth seeking for a pleasant evening's entertainment.

Link: Article about Shirley Barrett in The Age

Everynight... Everynight
I finally hunted down a copy of Alkinos Tsilimidos' first feature film on video and borrowed it from the ACMI Lending Collection. Let me qualify that since seeing Tom White (2004) and especially Em 4 Jay (2006), I'm a big fan of this director's work. In fact, he is my favourite Australian director, and Em 4 Jay my equal favourite Australian film (the other being Rowan Woods' The Boys).

After seeing Em 4 Jay, I purchased Silent Partner on DVD. It has much in common with all of Tsilimidos' feature films, most notably its concern with the dregs of society. Unlike his other works, this film is most obviously comedic, and for me not as strong as his more gritty social realist works. What surprised me about Everynight... Everynight, is how gritty and uncompromising it is, something that Em 4 Jay appears to be a return to. Yet in spite of the bleak narrative in both these films, let there be no doubt that humour (and much of it) is to be found.

Shot in stunning black and white by Toby Oliver (cinematographer on all four of Tsilimidos' films), the film grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go. The fact that it's loosely based on an actual story is chilling. Co-written by Tsilimidos and Ray Mooney, it's derived from the play by Mooney who experienced first-hand Pentridge Prison's notorious H-division (where the film is set). This is the only Tsilimidos feature film where playwright Daniel Keene was not involved in the writing.

The film portrays Dale (by Tsilimidos regular, David Field), a fictionalised version of Christopher Dale Flannery, before he became the infamous hit-man who disappeared in 1985 without a trace, believed murdered. The fact that the film is dedicated to a notorious criminal is interesting, to say the least. For me, it confirms the director's sense of humanity - even the so-called scum of the earth are humans and due the dignity of being treated as such. That's something that later Royal Commissions have uncovered that prisoners were denied.

Like all of the director's films, the dialogue is full of authentic coarse language, the language of the streets and gutters inhabited by the lowest of the low. When we meet Dale on remand at Pentridge for assault, he appears to be a lost cause, but not yet the ruthless killer he was to become. Maybe Tsilimidos is suggesting the penal system, rather than rehabilitating him, assisted him down this path. The main antagonist is a prison officer, Berriman, played with chilling brutality and authenticity by the ubiquitous Bill Hunter. Hunter is almost a legend in Australian cinema, often playing affable larrikins, as he did in Tom White. I wrote at the time of Tom White's release that that was perhaps one of Hunter's best ever performances. His performance in Everynight... Everynight is at least on a par, and one of the best hatred-filled psychopathic depictions I have seen. It's right up there with Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. Unlike David Lynch's landmark film, there is none of the surrealism - just gritty reality (though aesthetically stylised), which makes it even more scary.

Dale enters Pentridge on remand for assault but is assigned indefinitely to H-division for swearing at the prison governor. H-division had been taken over by sadistic prison officers who revel in the humiliation and dehumanisation of its residents. They take any opportunity to beat the prisoners viciously and relentlessly. In effect, they have become worse criminals than those they are overseeing. It brings to mind the soldiers we send to war zones (think Abu Ghraib), and the effects this must have on them reassimilating into normal society.

The array of characters that fills Tsilimidos' H-division (it was filmed in the then recently closed HM Prison Geelong), the brilliant character development and idiosyncratic dialogue add immensely to the appeal of the film. Haunting music that reflects the underdog, by Paul Kelly (who also contributed to the next two Tsilimidos films), also adds nicely. The lighting and dark shadows are reminiscent of 1940's film noir, and there is a timelessness to the look of the film. I love the way one of the prisoners screams out from his cell "you fucking poof-tah!!!". And how Dale defiantly 'resigns', not just from prison, but from life.

This film shook me with its believable content and also surprised me with the technical expertise that I have come to recognise in Tsilimidos' later films. I find it unfortunate that his name is not more readily recognised, and that his films are not more widely distributed.

Everynight... Everynight is being re-released on DVD by Shock DVD around September/October. It is an historic Australian film and I highly recommend it.

The Home Song Stories
Tony Ayre's Walking on Water (2002) received many rave reviews upon its release but I was underwhelmed by it. His latest film, The Home Song Stories, which recently screened to acclaim at MIFF, hits the mark that was missed in his earlier film. This is a much more assured work, and a much more personal one, depicting the director's difficult childhood. I have heard it compared to Romulus, My Father, and both share some common themes. I attended a preview screening today, which was following by a Q&A session with the director, producer and two of the stars. The time I have available to me at present can't do justice to the event, so I will leave the details to a separate post during the week. In short, this film is moving, well-made and depicts some universal themes.


Kamikaze Camel said...

I'm not a fan at all of the two Tsilimidos films I've seen (Tom White and Em4Jay). Unfortunately. I also wasn't a fan of Love Serenade.

Walk the Talk was released though. It was recently on TV (late at night, obvs) too.

I'm seeing The Home Song Stories in a couple of weeks as part of the AFI festival of film. Am really looking forward to it for Joan Chen most of all.

Paul Martin said...

Glenn, there's something in Tsilimidos' films that I connect with. Maybe it blinds me to what others see as faults, or maybe I understand his intent better than most. It could be either or both. His films move me.

I often find that Q&A sessions help to enhance the film experience. Especially if it's a film one likes, of course. Joan Chen was great, but so were the the other three main characters, including the two children.

Phillip Kelly said...

Ratatouille: you forgot to mention the great use of Ian Holmes French accent.

There was just too much heart and good natured fun in "Ratatouille" for me to be able to agree with your wanting some more edge. I'm all for edge in kids' movies, but with a film like this that does everything it sets out to do, and with perfection.

You didn't think all of the cooks leaving was a surprise, or when the critics mind flashes back to childhood that it didn't somehow capture that moment done so wonderfully in the animated Grinch when the heart grows?

There was something honest and joyful about the film, it didn't remind me of Hollywood films of now, but Hollywood films that once were, and it was a nice reminder.

Paul Martin said...

Thanks for your comments, Phil. I understand your perspective, but for me it was just a bit too cheesy - pardon the pun ;)

I agree that the childhood flashback was done really well. For me, I don't know if the film absolutely needed more edge, but I found the narrative a bit too pedestrian. It played it very safe and predictable. But that's me, and as I said above, I'm sure this will be well-received. It has a ready-made market.

Phillip Kelly said...

If we're talking cheese, I prefer my cheddar mild.