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.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Week in Review

This Week in Review is not for this week, it's for last week. I started writing this post as usual, but circumstances prevented me from completing it. I usually post my weekly review on a Sunday evening, for everything I've seen from Monday to Sunday. Alas, it's now Saturday evening so I'm nearly a week late. C'est la vie.

The high point of this week was 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which I intend seeing again before I post a review. I saw the first screening of a brand new print that had arrived the previous day. All I will say for now is it is excellent, social realist film-making that has much in common with the Dardenne brothers' L'enfant or even Tsilimidos' Em 4 Jay. It is a worthy winner of this year's Palme d'Or at Cannes that just has to be seen by serious cinephiles.

  • Sedmikrásky (Daisies, Vera Chytilová, Czechoslovakia, 1966)
  • Valerie a týden divů (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, Jaromil Jires, Czechoslovakia, 1970)
  • A Nocturne (Bill Masoulis, Australia, 2007)
  • 4 luni, 3 săptămâni şi 2 zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Cristian Mungiu, Romania, 2007)
  • Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, USA, 1973)
  • Otrantský zámek (Castle of Ostranto, Jan Svankmajer, Czechoslovakia, 1977)
  • Zánik domu Usheru (The Fall of the House of Usher, Jan Svankmajer, Czechoslovakia, 1981)
  • Kyvadlo, jáma a nadeje (The Pit, the Pendulum and Hope, Jan Svankmajer, Czechoslovakia, 1983)
I really like this unusual Czech New Wave film, though I know some of my fellow Melbourne Cinémathèque members thought less of it. It's experimental nature demonstrates some of the psychedelic devices of the period, and contextually I had no problems with it, though it has dated. It was banned by the Czechoslovakian authorities for a time, largely (if not entirely) out of ignorance. They feared the avant garde.

Daisies is about two young women (both named Marie), self-indulgent to the extreme. I call this type 'Princess Bitches' and was recently amused to find a book by Melbourne child psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg about the same condition (and it's called The Princess Bitchface Syndrome). I have a daughter around this age who, it must be said, has caused much grief, and Daisies satirises the mayhem such girls can cause by pushing it to the max.

The film is an anti-war statement, a connection made clear at the start with imagery of destruction wrought by bombing. The director's intent is to show how obnoxious behaviour manifested on an individual level correlates to obnoxious behaviour on an international level. The two Maries plot to hoodwink older men to pay for their meals and other favours, in exchange for pleasure which is never delivered. What I find particularly fascinating is how such behaviour has proliferated especially in contemporary times.

The film comes to a climax when these two terrors discover an unattended banquet in a hall. There was a terrific long take capturing the carefree destruction by the girls. Once again, thanks to the Czech embassy, we had excellent prints on the night. Check out this site for more info, including links to Deputy Pruzinec's speech to the Czech National Assembly condemning Daisies and director Vera Chytilova's letter to President Gustav Husak, pleading to be allowed to resume work with film.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
This was a fantasy/horror film, the least engaging of all the Czech season. It's a fairly camp vampire story which tries to tantalise with a little nudity and hints of incestuous relationships. While it has some beautiful imagery, the plot was fairly puerile.

Other than as a curio, the film did little for me. As it's been over a week since I saw it, I find I have nothing more to say about it, though Chris Hyde has written an interesting piece.

A Nocturne
I struggled with this film, partly due to sleep-deprivation, partly due to the quality of the screening (at Toff of the Town, a non-cinema venue with a small poor quality screen) and partly due to the content. It's a vampire flick set in Melbourne, made by local film-maker Bill Masoulis. This was the opening night film for MUFF 2007, and as the festival finishes tonight, it will be the only film I got to see at the festival. It's just not humanly possible to fit everything in.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
I'm not a big fan of the Western genre and consequently have had little exposure to Sam Peckinpah. Maybe it's the "over-abundance" of manliness (as it's referred to in Sunshine) that doesn't appeal. Or maybe it's the guns and violence. So this film, while it has some redeeming features (like James Coburn's depiction of Pat Garrett), this film also did little for me. The director assumes the audience has knowledge of the characters. It was only by reading about the film afterwards that I learnt what was the significance of the opening scene (repeated at the end).

Kris Kristofferson's role as Billy the Kid was reasonable but somewhat tame, and Bob Dylan's cameo was amusing, entertaining if not gratuitous. He provided the music to the film, which worked quite well. Like most westerns, the role of women was relegated to mostly window dressing. Perhaps that's another reasons why I don't generally like the genre - there's no balance of the real-life day-to-day, the drama of real people interacting.

I find it fascinating that the film depicts events that are scarcely more than a century ago - times that can surely be considered modern. Yet, the 'wild-west' nature of the times, with the proliferation of firearms and cavalier manner in which they were used (at least as depicted in the film) surely gives some hint as to why the US has so many problems connected to violence and firearms to this day.

Short Films by Jan Svankmajer
I presume this name means something to those a bit more educated in Eastern European cinema than myself. I found each of these films of little interest and didn't engage me at all.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Tom White

Tom White (Alkinos Tsilimidos, Australia, 2004)
My first encounter with the name Alkinos Tsilimidos was in 2004 when I saw Tom White. I had unfortunately missed the theatrical release, but caught it later at an AFI screening. This was the year that Somersault and Tom White were the only films in serious contention for AFI awards. Somersault walked away with fifteen and Tom White none. While the cinematography in Somersault was nice, Toby Oliver's cinematography in Tom White was considerably better, and on every other account that I can think of, Tom White was a vastly superior film (1).

Daniel Keene's writing collaborations with Tsilimidos produce compelling stories that cry out in a way that we are able to appreciate the humanity of those around us that we normally give no thought to. With Everynight... Everynight the protagonist is a criminal, with Em 4 Jay they are junkies, and in Tom White it is the homeless. Tsilimidos is a master of inspired casting and hit gold with Colin Friels' gut-wrenching performance as the title character. Tom White's descent from comfortable suburban middle-class to homelessness via a crisis of identity and a mental health breakdown is captured with a feeling of "that could be me". And it could. That's what makes this film so important.

I've read complaints about the film: "the stories are too episodic", "there's not enough the wife's story", "the ending is too ambiguous" and so on. These miss the point. This is Tom's story. This is life as he sees it. The episodic nature is a reflection of the volatility in his life, and of his lack of ability to commit to a given situation: he moves on when emotionally it's too much to handle. The narrative follows a true sense of reality rather than what we as a comfortable audience may wish to see. The glimpses of Tom's family are mere reference points to compare Tom's life, a sort of before and after, in much the same way that the glimpses of Em's sister Janey in Em 4 Jay enabled us to see how far she had descended into addiction.

Tsilimidos' films may be viewed as gritty social realism, but there is a stylised aesthetic he uses that differentiates him from film-makers like say, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh or the Dardenne brothers. Melbourne is used as a unique and clearly recognisable backdrop without resorting to stereotypical postcard shots (like The Jammed did, for example). While the characters and their situations may be bleak, the visuals combine beautifully with the music to create an uplifting type of visual poetry. Paul Kelly's music is a common element in his films
(2), and there's something about Kelly's mournful laments of the everyman that stir up emotions without the film becoming overtly manipulative.

The blend of characters keeps the film interesting and for me recalls a very different film, David Lynch's The Straight Story, in which the protagonist meets one character, engages in some curious but understated dialogue before moving on and meeting yet another character. While Friels is centre-stage for most of the film, the impressive cast is considerably larger than other Tsilimidos films and includes Rachel Blake, Loene Carmen, David Field, Bill Hunter (in perhaps one of his finest roles), Dan Spielman and Jarryd Jinks.

A couple of interesting details regarding Tom's job: Alkinos Tsilimidos started studying as an architect after high school but changed courses after a couple of years
(3). Laura Gordon and Nick Barkla, the title characters in Em 4 Jay, both have small roles in Tom White. In an early scene, Gordon can be seen approaching Tom's desk as he is retrieving some pencils he has dropped while Barkla plays the architect that Tom belts with some architectural plans at 'Clearwater Springs'.

Permeating the film is Tom's self-questioning in his search for identity: "Who am I?", "am I the man that was over there a minute ago?" and "this face is me". I found this heart-achingly rendered by Friels and the dialogue was effective, believable and at times funny. Anyone who has experienced pain in life should be able to relate to Tom's anguish. It reminds me of personal crises of my own, such as the breakdown of my marriage many years ago. I found it particularly traumatic at the time, and I have strong recollections of staring at myself in the mirror and not fully recognising the person I was seeing. The film has an uncanny ability to tap into the concerns, indeed the very real and darkest fears of real everyday people. It brought tears to my eyes more than once.

I found the ending particularly moving, plausible and uplifting not just in spite of its ambiguity, but also because of it. We see Tom still haggard with long hair but neat, clean, with trimmed beard and apparently in a safe place. Will he reconcile with his wife? Will he receive treatment for his mental state? We'll never know, but like reality, there's no "and they lived happily ever after" ending. As we fade to black, I once again find myself sitting quietly in my seat, moved and ruminating about the experience. I love this type of cinema and I hope Alkinos Tsilimidos keeps making honest and touching films like this.

(1) Tom White did receive considerable accolades: At the Film Critics Circle awards, Daniel Keene won for best original screenplay, Colin Friels won for best actor, Dan Spielman won for best supporting actor and Ken Sallows won for best editing. Toby Oliver won both the Golden Tripod and the NSW awards for best cinematography and Friels also won the IF award for best actor.
(2) Em 4 Jay features the music of The Black Keys, though Jay (Nick Barkla) sings a couple of lines of a Paul Kelly song, from memory it was Before Too Long.
(3) Alkinos left university to care for a dying friend and classmate, who he acknowledges in the final credits of his first film, Everynight... Everynight. Maybe Tom's role is semi-autobiographical, as I've read an interview where Tsilimidos considers Tom's predicament something he could find himself in.

The Week in Review

I had Destricted in my Outlook film calendar and turned up at ACMI today only to find that I was a week early. Strangely though, I had the correct date in my Google Calendar of Film Events (in this blog's sidebar). Strange, indeed. The Sunday screening next week also has a panel discussion afterwards, but I have a Melbourne Cinémathèque committee commitment that clashes, so I'm hoping to go on Saturday instead.

The highlight this week was the start of the Czech season at Melbourne Cinémathèque. I also watched Tom White late last night and am writing a separate review. I actually liked this more than anything else I saw during the week, but I consider Tom White one of the top 10 Australian films of the last decade.

  • Tom White (Alkinos Tsilimidos, 2004)

Lady Chatterley
Call me a philistine, but I hated D.H. Lawrence at school. From memory we covered both Sons and Lovers and Lady Chatterley's Lover. I found the writing staid and boring, reflecting a repressive social and class-conscious culture that held no appeal to me. I remember an interview I read some time ago with Charlotte Rampling, an English ex-pat living in France (and frequent collaborator with François Ozon), who felt she had to leave England because she finds even the contemporary culture stifling.

It may not be a surprise then, that I'm not a big fan of English period films, for pretty much the same reasons mentioned by Rampling. I generally find them dull, pretentious and overly theatrical. While this film didn't astound me, it was well made (avoiding the above-mentioned pitfalls) and quite frankly, better than any English period piece I've seen.

The cinematography was very good, the characters were much more realistic and there was more subtlety than we're accustomed to with the genre. The fact that it was an English story in French worked fine with me. If you like period films and/or French drama, there's a good chance you'll like this.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Czech Cinema at Cteq

I was anticipating this week's screenings at Melbourne Cinémathèque, the first week in the season of Czech New Wave cinema titled East of Eden: The Imaginary in Czech Cinema 1964 – 1983. The first week's screenings were top class selections, both from excellent prints, specially imported for the season with the assistance of the Embassy of the Czech Republic. Karel Pazourek, the Czech ambassador personally flew in from Canberra to introduce the season, and his love of cinema was evident. He spoke passionately about Czech cinema for over ten minutes, giving some historical, political and other context, and it was very inspiring.

Another Melbourne Cinémathèque committee member and I spoke with him after the screenings, and his knowledge of world cinema (including Australian cinema) was also evident. He even invited us to go somewhere for a drink, but we both had to decline with work the next day.

Ucho (The Ear, Karel Kachyňa, 1970)
With its overt Orwellian political themes, this film reminded me of both Krzysztof Kieslowki's Przypadek (Blind Chance, 1981) and Orson Welles' Le procès (The Trial, 1961). With the noose of Soviet censorship tightening around the time of the film's completion, it never saw the light of day for twenty years, and debuted at Cannes in 1990.

Taking place over one night, it depicts a government minister and his wife, Ludvík and Anna (played by Radoslav Brzobohatý and Jirina Bohdalová), as they stumble home in the dark from an official function. Things are not quite right - keys are missing, doors unlocked, things have been moved. The house is the only one in the street without electricity and the phone is also disconnected. Maybe the state is listening, hence the title.

We see various flashbacks to the function as Ludvík recalls conversations he had that make him suspect that arrest by the state may be imminent. A slowly growing and claustrophobic sense of paranoia builds up to a crescendo, climaxing to an ending I found both effective and unexpected.

The film had elements of drama, melodrama, film noir and political thriller, all effectively interwoven to provide a compelling and suspenseful story which draws to a powerful and unexpected climax. The story unfolds using the device of the bickering couple. He - level headed but impatient, her - alcoholic and demanding. The film is basically a two-hander, and could work well as a stage play. It was interesting to see how the volatility of the couple's relationship developed as the sense of menace gradually increased.

Spalovač mrtvol (The Cremator, Juraj Herz, 1968)
This highly satirical comedy is slightly reminiscent of Luis García Berlanga's El verdugo (The Executioner, 1963), with its humour, preoccupation with death and political undertones. The subtle political critique in The Cremator seems to be directed at Nazism, so I was surprised to learn that the film was also banned by the Soviets. I learnt afterwards from the Czech ambassador that this was not because of the film's content, but because the director had been black-listed. Ah, Big Brother and censorship, where would we be without them?

The film's mood is set with the bizarre opening credits, a little in the style of Monty Python. Cross-cutting is used to show parallels between the animal kingdom and humans. The title character, Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrusínský), is a repugnant man who presents himself as a cultured and respectable member of society but whose manipulative manner is evident as he leads people around like animals (prey).

The film is set in the 1930's as Hitler's power spreads to Czechoslovakia. Always an opportunist, Kopfrkingl sees new possibilities with the demand for cremation (an indirect reference to the horrors of the Holocaust). The film becomes a horror narrative of sorts as Kopfrkingl's behaviour gradually descends into acts of psychopathic violence against those around him. The film seems to be making the point that totalitarianism is obnoxious and collaborators are, despite appearances, uncultured and no better than animals.

As pointed out by the Czech ambassador, these Melbourne Cinémathèque screenings comprise the first season of Czech films to be screened in Australia in over thirty years. This is a rare opportunity to see some of the finest of European cinema of the period, and all films in the season are Australian premieres. I highly recommend the remaining two weeks of the season (Wednesday evenings, 7pm at ACMI).

Thursday, September 13, 2007

November events

The Calendar of Film Events (in the sidebar) has been updated with events for November. If you're interested, you can subscribe to this calendar by creating a Google account and clicking the subscribe button. You can then either view the calendar in your browser, or copy events from the calendar to your own Google calendar.

Highlights for November include:
  • Focus on Catherine Breillat (ACMI, 25 Oct - 4 Nov)
  • Message Sticks Indigenous Film Festival (ACMI, 5-6 Nov)
  • Festival of Jewish Cinema (ACMI, 8-28 Nov)
  • Hola Mexico Film Festival (Westgarth, 22-28 Nov)
  • Melbourne Cinémathèque (every Wednesday evening)
Film releases during November include:
  • Angel (François Ozon) - 1 Nov.
  • Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino) - 1 Nov.
  • Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog) - 8 Nov.
  • Inland Empire (David Lynch) - 15 Nov.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Post update

My Week in Review post for Sunday 2 September only listed the films viewed in that week, without any reviews. I have now added comments/reviews for each of the films. Check it out.

The films are:
  • The Strawberry Blonde (Raoul Walsh, USA, 1941)
  • Waitress (Adrienne Shelley, USA, 2007)
  • Trust (Hal Hartley, USA, 1990)
  • Forbidden Lie$ (Anna Broinowski, Australia, 2007)
  • Chacun son cinéma (Various, France, 2007)

ACMI Focus on François Ozon

François Ozon first came to my attention in 2002 with his minimalist film Under the Sand (Sous le sable, 2000) featuring frequent collaborator Charlotte Rampling. While I find it hard to define my favourite French film as I tend somewhat to consider the body of French film as a whole, this film is of a style that has really endeared French cinema to me. Contemplative and intelligent, it trusts the audience to 'get' it without making a big splash (and for those who have seen the film, no pun intended).

When Swimming Pool was released, I learnt that Charlotte Rampling was not French but British, but had been attracted to France for perhaps some of the same reasons that draw me. I believe her French-speaking skills are immaculate (and she has lived in France for many years). I thought Swimming Pool (2003) was a more showy, mainstream film than Under the Sand, perhaps a little derivative of films by the likes of David Lynch or even David Fincher's Fight Club.

8 femmes (8 Women, 2002) was a comedic melodrama, and not really my thing. However, it was interesting to see the range of Ozon, while Time to Leave (Le temps qui reste, 2005) was a return to Under the Sand territory - a serious contemplation of death, redemption and letting go. I have seen five Ozon films to date, and the first (Under the Sand) remains my favourite.

ACMI screened the fabulous Focus on Isabelle Huppert earlier this year, and I managed to catch 13 of the 20 films screened. Soon there will be a Focus for each of both François Ozon and Catherine Breillat (director of challenging and controversial films such as Anatomie de l'enfer, À ma soeur and Romance). For Francophiles such as myself, this is cinema heaven!

The Breillat Focus starts 25 October and I will post more details closer to that date. The Ozon Focus marks the release of his latest film, Angel, (on November 1 by Dendy Films), his first English language film, starring Romala Garai, Charlotte Rampling, Sam Neill (yes, the Kiwi we like to call our own) and Michael Fassbender. The film is an adaptation of an Elizabeth Taylor novel.

The Focus on François Ozon starts Thursday 5 October and runs to Sunday 14 October. Angel will be screening as well as all his previous features and several of his shorts. As with some of the ACMI Focuses, a number of films personally selected by the director for this season will also be screened. Quoting from the ACMI media release:

Four of Ozon’s films will screen as double bills, each being teamed with a feature personally selected by Ozon himself as an inspiration or ideal screening companion.

Water Drops on Burning Rocks (Gouttes d'eau sur pierres brûlantes, 2000) will screen with Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul (1973)

8 Women will screen with Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959)

Swimming Pool will screen with Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966)

5 x 2 (2004) will screen with brand new imported print of Luis Buñuel’s Belle De Jour (1967) starring Catherine Deneuve

Focus on François Ozon will give fans an opportunity to view the director’s rarely seen earlier work including his first two features Sitcom (1998), a black comedy that takes the family sitcom to its darkest (and campest) extreme; Criminal Lovers (Les amants criminels, 1999) a sexy thriller that is part Blair Witch and part Hansel and Gretel, and a selection of Ozon’s early shorts including Action Verite (1994), Summer Dress (1996), Le petite morte (1995), Bed Scenes (1994), as well as Ozon’s unforgettable featurette of menace, See The Sea (1998).

Watch the ACMI website for further details (which are not yet posted).

Photos: François Ozon, press image for Angel

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Week in Review

I've had another relatively quiet week for film. Maybe it's the calm before the storm - coming up soon we have a veritable tidal wave of cinema.

  • West (Daniel Krige, Australia, 2007)
  • Once (John Carney, Ireland, 2007)
  • Grey Gardens (Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Ellen Hovde & Muffie Meyer, USA, 1975)
There was only one thing I liked about this film - the opening credits, and I'm neither joking nor exaggerating. A story about two best friends/cousins who seem to drink, take (and sell) drugs and have sex. Right from the start, by the way they interacted, it was obvious these were a couple of moronic bogan losers going nowhere. The dialogue was stupid and unconvincing, the acting mediocre and the personal chemistry worse. The narrative was predictable and there were some ridiculous narrative impossibilities (someone with his head bashed three times with a large steel pipe doesn't talk back - rather he would look a little like the gentleman in Gaspar Noe's Irreversible after he got up close and personal with a fire extinguisher).

The film was dull, depressing and worst of all, it was impossible to discern the point of the exercise. It wasn't like a Tsilimidos film, infused with a sense of humanity, meaning and gritty realism. I could have walked out at any point after two minutes, and as the film progressed, a number of people did. The session was an AFI screening (free for us members), and I did get to meet up with Glenn from Stale Popcorn, who more or less agreed with me (though I don't think he liked the credits).

Once is unashamedly sentimental and is yet a very endearing film. In spite of its emotional manipulation, director John Carney manages to successfully pull it off by having a simple, well-written story, a credible cast (it is mostly a two-hander) and an earthy reality that grounds the film. The film is full of emotional honesty that engages with the audience.

While I disliked the unnecessary shakiness of the hand-held camera (a pet hate of mine), there were some excellent tracking shots. A stand-out was when the the girl (played by Markéta Irglová) went down the street to buy some batteries in her pyjamas. I loved the way the camera preceded her (like the music video of The Verve's Bitter Sweet Symphony) in one long take, passing details like a builder's skip. Dublin was depicted very aesthetically.

Apparently the film is semi-autobiographical, depicting a relationship the director once had. The guy (played by Glen Hansard) is a current member of The Frames while the director is a former member.

The film has been described as a musical, which it may be, but not in the conventional sense. The music certainly plays an integral part of the narrative and is both moving and uplifting. The film has timeless appeal with both an old-style feel about it, but in a contemporary setting. I recommend it as an intelligent feel-good film and especially as a date film.

Grey Gardens
Having missed the recent screening of Grey Gardens on the big screen at ACMI, I had to contend with seeing it on DVD. I don't have a problem with that as generally I find documentaries are better suited for the small screen. I also had the advantage of the DVD extras, which in this case was a recent short film by a young obsessive fan of the Maysles' film which provided an interesting update.

Grey Gardens is a fascinating view into another world, that belonging to mother and daughter Edith and Edi Beale, who were the aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy. The title refers to the name of the 28-room mansion they inhabited in the Hamptons on Long Island. It had fallen into disrepair and the local authorities had threatened to evict them from the property on health and safety grounds.

The Maysle brothers took their camera into the lives of these strangely eccentric women and documented the nature of their love-hate relationship, their lifestyle and their cats. While on one hand one could view these women with pity, the reality is that they lived the life they wished to. The Maysles were criticised for being exploitative of people who were clearly deluded (if not mentally ill), though they always stood by their film, pointing out that the Beales were staunch supporters of it. It reminded me of what Alkinos Tsilimidos told me about Harry, the subject of his graduation film (Man of Straw), who used to hire his copy of the video to make an extra buck or two.

Edith was once a singer and even in her eighties, she still had a fine voice (though she would often belittle Edie, including her attempts at singing). Edie was passionate about dancing, and dressed extravagantly, befitting a show business performer. In fact, after the death of her mother and the sale of Grey Gardens, Edie did perform in New York City for a time.

Apparently this film is right up there with Errol Morris' Thin Blue Line as one of the most influential documentaries of all time. My primary interest in seeing the film on this occasion was its being named by Tsilimidos as influencing his style of film-making on Man of Straw (included as a DVD extra on the Silent Partner DVD). That fact enhanced my appreciation for both films.

Upcoming Melbourne film events

The weeks after MIFF have been relatively quiet on the film front, but there's much on the horizon. Most notable are:
  • A season of Czech films at Melbourne Cinémathèque for the next three weeks (starting this week)
  • ACMI is screening the controversial omnibus film, Destricted (for four days Thurs. Sept. 13)
  • An ACMI Focus on Peter Whitehead (starts Fri. Sept. 14)
  • The Italian Film Festival (starts Wed. Sept. 19)
  • Melbourne Underground Film Festival (MUFF, starts Thurs. Sept. 20)
  • Victor Erice's acclaimed film The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) screens at the Erwin Rado Theatrette on Thurs. Sept. 27. Note: this is a terrific companion film to Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. Superficially they are completely different films, but thematic twins.
  • An ACMI Focus on François Ozon, one of my favourite contemporary French directors (stars Thurs. Oct. 5)
  • Another ACMI Focus, this one on Catherine Breillat, another French director who makes challenging films (starts Thurs. Oct. 25)
  • The Festival of Jewish Cinema at ACMI (starts Thurs. Nov. 8)
On top of that, there's the theatrical release of various films. The highlights for me are:
  • Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, opens Oct. 25)
  • Angel (François Ozon, opens Nov. 1)
  • Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino, opens Nov. 1)
  • Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog, opens Nov. 8)
  • Inland Empire (David Lynch, opens Nov. 15)
Check out the Calendar of Film Events in the sidebar for further details.

Venice Film Festival 2007 Awards

The Venice Film Festival has drawn to a close and the big winners are:
  • Golden Lion for best film: Lust, Caution by Ang Lee
  • Silver Lion for best director: Brian de Palma for Redacted
  • Volpi Cup for best actor: Brad Pitt for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Andrew Dominik (of Chopper fame)
  • Volpi Cup for best actress: Cate Blanchett in I'm Not There by Todd Haynes
The full list of winners is on the official website.

Friday, September 07, 2007

This Filthy World

John Waters is renowned for his classic transgressive trash films of the 1970’s like Pink Flamingos, starring frequent collaborator, the transvestite Divine, as well as David Lochary and Mink Stole. He first found mainstream acceptance with Hairspray (1988), which featured Ricki Lake, Deborah Harry, Sonny Bono and again, Divine and Mink Stole. A remake of Hairspray is being released next week, while a Broadway musical version had a run in 2002.

This Filthy World is directed by Jeff Garlin, who is probably best known for his role in Curb Your Enthusiasm as Larry David’s manager. The film depicts eighty minutes of what may be described as a stand-up comedy routine by Waters. It may have been written as such, but it has more of an appearance of the director sharing some of his life stories with an audience, in which he reveals various anecdotes from his past during the making of his films, and some of his influences.

Waters may be the King of crude, but he is also a very polished performer, something he apparently picked up from the early days of travelling around the US. He would screen his films in small cinemas and personally present them on stage. He clearly has enormous intellect and a keen sense of humour. Even if you know nothing of his work, his stories are very compelling and entertaining.

This Filthy World premieres at ACMI tonight and also screensnext Friday. Check it out. For more details, see the ACMI website.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Week in Review

It's taken me a while to write on these films, but are my thoughts on them.

  • The Strawberry Blonde (Raoul Walsh, USA, 1941)
  • Waitress (Adrienne Shelley, USA, 2007)
  • Trust (Hal Hartley, USA, 1990)
  • Forbidden Lie$ (Anna Broinowski, Australia, 2007)
  • Chacun son cinéma (Various, France, 2007)
The Strawberry Blonde
I found this film an enjoyable enough experience, but unexceptional. And because of that, and the passage of time since seeing it, I find I now have little to say about it.

Adrienne Shelly's start as an actress was in two Hal Hartley films: The Unbelievable Truth (1989) and Trust (1990). As far as I can ascertain, these were the only Hartley features she appeared in, though she did also appear in Hartley's 8 minute short Opera No. 1 (1994).

Hartley's style must have had a seminal influence, because his touch is evident in Shelly's last film, Waitress. Unfortunately she died last year under unfortunate circumstances (she was murdered, to be a little more precise), which you can check out on Wikipedia.

Waitress is being marketed at the same people who watch Sex in the City or Desperate Housewives, which might put off some for whom this film will really appeal (it should appeal regardless of gender). This is a US indie gem, that will especially appeal to Hartley fans. It uses a similarly dry but whacky humour, intelligent dialogue and an unpredictable narrative arc. And like a Hartley film, there is a dramatic core that is emotionally moving because it is grounded in truth.

The film is beautifully shot, with food and its preparation a joyous visual sub-theme. The character development is excellent, and it was interesting to see Cheryl Hines post-Curb Your Enthusiasm. Centre stage is Keri Russell who plays Jenna, a waitress at the local diner, along-side co-workers Becky (Hines) and Dawn (Shelly). Jeremy Sisto authentically portrays Jenna's jealous husband Earl and Nathan Fillion plays her gynecologist. An aging Andy Griffith also had a small but effective role.

While Hartley's films often end tragically, Waitress is not quite so dismal, and the film's overall mood is more upbeat and lighter than Hartley's style. The film appeals to one's sentimentality, but that's not a complaint - rather that's part of its enjoyment. It is well-written
with intelligent dialogue and story - well worth seeing.

Waitress premiered at ACMI and screened with Hal Hartley's Trust as part of an Adrienne Shelly double. Waitress has a theatrical release starting 25 October.

Photo: Cheryl Hines, Keri Russell and Adrienne Shelly

I think one either loves or hates Hal Hartley's style. I fall into the former camp. I've now seen three of his films, the others being Amateur (1994) and Fay Grim (2006). Trust is an excellent companion piece to Waitress, and it fascinating to see a younger Adrienne Shelly convincingly portray a 17 year old (at 23 or 24 years of age). After seeing Amateur, it was also good to see Martin Donovan taking lead role in another Hartley film (a search of IMDB indicates Donovan in 7 Hartley films). Hartley uses him to very good effect, especially with his style of deadpan humour.

The parallel stories of Donovan's Matthew and Shelly's Maria alienation from their respective families must surely strike a cord with many disaffected youth, though hopefully not to many would emulate Matthew's carrying a hand-grenade. The character of Matthew's father reminded me of Ricky Fitts' father (played by Chris Cooper) in American Beauty. While the development of Matthew's and Maria's relationship is central to the film, their bond is unsurprisingly unconventional, yet grounded in a reality that resonates. One can connect with these guys. The inter-twining of various tangential stories (like a baby kidnapping) adds to a whacky other-worldly vibe that permeates the film and gives opening for the unexpected.

I haven't found any of the Hartley films I've seen earth-shattering or the top of any lists but they are immensely enjoyable. They are intelligent comedy/thriller/dramas that are definitely out of the square, interesting and keep ya' guessing. I like the way he creates characters that are down-and-out losers, puts them together, throws in some impossible coincidences and lets the narrative go wild. I'm surprised it took me so long to discover him. Trust is a dark but humorous film that is also very moving.

Photo: Martin Donovan and Adrienne Shelly

Forbidden Lie$
In examining a literary hoax - Norma Khouri's claims in her best-selling book, Forbidden Love, about honour killings in Jordan - this Forbidden Lie$ is a fascinating portrait of a liar. By this I mean not so much as getting into the mind of a liar as in recognising one. Shifting sands is an image seen periodically during the film and how relevant a metaphor that proves to be, as Norma Khouri is revealled not just as a liar, but a con-woman on the run from the FBI.

What a fascinating journey Anna Broinowski went on, a journey she could never have imagined when she set out to prove Norma Khouri was genuine. In fact, Broinowski's belief in Khouri is the reason the film ever got made (Khouri almost certainly would not have cooperated otherwise).

While it is clear to me that Khouri is a fake, I'm sure there will be some who will come away from watching this documentary still unsure. In isolation, any one statement made by her is convincing enough to fool the average person (or any person for that matter). What gets her ultimately is the fact that she has been captured on film. One completely plausible explanation of the truth has already been contradicted by previous explanations that were equally convincing. Oh, what a tangled web we weave...

This well-made documentary is very entertaining and compelling due to Broinowski's combination of various factors: first and foremost, an interesting and willing subject (though, not so willing as her fabrications crumbled), relevant and varied perspectives, its international scope, a narrative arc that unfolds like a thriller and the use of effective dramatic recreations (a la Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line).

I predict this film will win best Australian documentary awards do well in the US (where some of the story unfolds) and elsewhere. It is well worth a look.

Links: AFI interview with director Anna Broinowski

Chacun son cinéma
I've been watching this DVD over a period of time. It's the omnibus film to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Cannes film, made up from the contributions of some of the most respected names in cinema. What the heck, I'll list them here:
Theodoros Angelopoulos, Olivier Assayas, Bille August, Jane Campion, Youssef Chahine, Kaige Chen, Michael Cimino, Joel & Ethan Coen, David Cronenberg, Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Manoel de Oliveira, Raymond Depardon, Atom Egoyan, Amos Gitai, Hsiao-hsien Hou, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Wong Kar-Wai, Aki Kaurismäki, Abbas Kiarostami, Takeshi Kitano, Andrei Konchalovsky, Claude Lelouch, Ken Loach, Nanni Moretti, Roman Polanski, Raoul Ruiz, Walter Salles, Elia Suleiman, Ming-liang Tsai, Gus Van Sant, Lars von Trier, Wim Wenders & Zhang Yimou.
That's 33 short films, each three minutes long, and each one is the respective director's take on the importance of cinema. It's impossible to give a detailed analysis (like I did for Paris, je t'aime) without at least a second viewing. In short, I liked this compilation a lot. The results are inconsistent, as you'd expect with this type of project, but it was very moving to see the way in which each director was able to depict aspects of cinema that were important to him or herself.