Saturday, December 27, 2008

2008 - The Year in Review

For many years, David Lynch has been my favourite film director and no-one else came close. My favourite film is Lost Highway and until I rediscovered Krzysztof Kieslowski last year, no other film came close. Melbourne Cinémathèque's partial retrospective offered a great revision of the Colours trilogy as well as some of Kieslowski's earlier films. Perhaps I'm being sentimental, but I still can't knock Lost Highway off its crown. As I wrote about it previously, some kinds of movie magic can only happen once, and for me that was Lost Highway. No other film has affected me to the same degree.

And yet, Kieslowski's films are so sublime, meaningful and personally affecting that I have to acknowledge his ascendency in my personal estimation. His entire body of work is so awesome, so full of ideas, explorations of human complexity and conundrums. This year I watched Dekalog on DVD and was amazed at the staggering accomplishment (I hope Melbourne Cinémathèque screens it one day - I've suggested it, but I won't hold my breath waiting). As I mentioned in my review of 2007, Three Colours: Blue is the first film to come close to Lost Highway in my all-time favourites.

What is it that Lynch and Kieslowski have in common as film-makers? On the surface, not a real lot, but underneath I think there's some similarities. Lynch explores the bizarre, depicting stories that often don't appear to make a whole lot of sense. They're like abstract works of art that don't necessarily have explanations, or even need them. When there is an explanation, one doesn't need it to enjoy the film.

Kieslowski's films are usually highly stylised social realism, with not a touch of Lynchian fantasy. Yet both directors are men who reportedly have a deep sense of spirituality, away from religion, but are never overt about their personal beliefs in their films. You generally cannot extract a direct message from them. I find both directors' works exude a deep sense of humanity, albeit in very different ways. In writing this, I suppose I'm exploring the connections myself.

Lynch appeals to the inner artist in me; his films speak to me on the level that art is important, and the artist's perspective is important. We live in a world where logic, reason, empiricism and economic realities rule. Lynch's work defies this and I love that we can see films like this, that push and challenge us. Kieslowski's films directly address the social and humanistic values that are the core of my personal values. If I could make films like any one director, I wish I could make them like Kieslowski's. Most of them are near flawless, intellectually, emotionally, humanistically, technically and aesthetically. His films epitomise everything that is most dear to me about cinema, and he does it in a way that is aesthetically pleasing, visually and aurally. So these two directors between them encapsulate important dimensions that represent the essence of cinema for me.

The above might seem like a fairly long preamble. It's something I wanted to get out of my system, and it has relevance to my end-of-year lists. Like last year, I've compiled separate lists for theatrical, festival and retrospective screenings. People like to compare lists (I certainly do) and it just seems more convenient and natural to divide them in this way. It makes it easier for me to compare films. With my lists below, I'm finding it more appropriate to group films rather than rank them absolutely, just like I can't really rank Lynch and Kieslowski relative to each other.

And here's a digression. Today was an important milestone for me on a personal level. Since my older son, Abhi, took his life just over two years ago, the bed he slept in when he regularly stayed with me has been unmade, exactly as he left it. It's been something that I've been unable to deal with or perhaps I've been holding onto, that I could smell him if I chose to, even though until today I didn't. And when I did, it brought tears to my eyes momentarily. Today I washed the bedding. It felt significant to me, and I just wanted to mention it. That's all.

So here's my picks of 2008:

Gus Van Sant has been one of my favourite American directors since Elephant, which until this year, was my favourite of his. I can't say I like Paranoid Park more, but I certainly don't like it any less. I love the subtlety of Paranoid Park and the fact that subsequent viewings enhanced my appreciation each time - this is the first film I've seen three times on the big screen during its theatrical release. The film looks terrific (with top notch cinematography by Christopher Doyle and inspired editing by Van Sant), the use of music is terrific, the characters are so authentic and the story is so moving.

Tony Gatlif's Transylvania is to Paranoid Park what Lost Highway is to Three Colours: Blue. They are so different but both so compelling that I can't separate them. They are my equal favourite theatrical releases of the year. I've loved everything I'm seen by Gatlif and I really should look out for his back catalogue. I love the cultural and cross-cultural elements of his films, the way he weaves music into his narratives and his documentation of the way of the Roma (gypsy life). Transylvania did all these too, but seemed to be much more effective than his earlier films. Maybe it was his casting of Asia Argento (reportedly the first time his main protagonist has been female). Maybe it was the multi-cultural aspect: an Italian from France travels to Romania to find the father of her expectant baby, hooks up with a German and... it's around here that I'm lost with all the cultural cross-roads, but I love it. There are some truly inspiration visuals and the film had me in tears more than once.

BTW, Paranoid Park is also the film I got to write a review for and get paid. I had a small piece published in The Big Issue (issue #299 from memory).

I've noticed people complaining about the quality of theatrical releases this year, but I think that complaint applies more to mainstream films, especially so-called blockbusters. It's been a struggle for the arthouse cinemas to get bums on seats for the serious films, which I find disappointing. Many niche films had short runs or screened only in Sydney, or straight to DVD. I'm not sure why support for truly arthouse cinema is waning, but I'm hoping it's cyclic and that people will tire of a dearth of variety and get back to those cinemas that take a few risks. Nonetheless, I'm quite happy with the overall quality of my top 10 theatrical releases.

For what it's worth, my nos. 3-6 are pretty much on a par, and little separates 7-10.

1. Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant, France/USA, 2007)
1. Transylvania (Tony Gatlif, France/Romania/UK/Hungary/Italy, 2006)
3. Auf der anderen Seite (The Edge of Heaven, Fatih Akin, Germany/Turkey/Italy, 2007)
4. Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud & Marjane Satrapi, France/USA, 2007)
5. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, UK, 2008)
6. Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, Israel/Germany/France, 2008)
7. La graine et le mulet (The Secret of the Grain, Abdellatif Kechiche, France, 2007)
8. Le scaphandre et le papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Julian Schnabel, France, 2007)
9. Hunger (Steve McQueen, Ireland/UK, 2008)
10. Du levande (You, the Living, Roy Andersson, Sweden/France/Germany/Denmark/Norway, 2007)

Special mentions:
Little separates these from my no.10. Grindhouse was a guilty pleasure, some of the best fun I had in a cinema all year.
Youth Without Youth (Francis Ford Coppola, USA/Germany/Italy/France/Romania, 2007)
Planet Terror (Robert Rodriguez, USA, 2007)
Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino, USA, 2007)

OK, I'm a festival junkie. I go to as many festivals as I can, maybe even more. I love the cultural aspect and I love seeing the best of what the world has to offer. This is always a solid part of my cinema experience. There's little to separate my nos. 1-3, 4-6 and 7-10. In 2006, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Iklimer (Climates) was my MIFF favourite and the Dardenne brothers' L'enfant (The Child) was my overall favourite. This year their respective offerings compete neck and neck.

Azur and Asmar was a surprise favourite of the French Film Festival. It's a children's film and, like Ocelot's earlier film Kirikou and the Sorceress, it's just as enjoyable for adults. Ocelot's films are very well written, very moving and very thought-provoking. They're inspirational for children. Azur and Asmar is one of the most visually stunning animated films you'll ever see.

1. Üç maymun (Three Monkeys, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey/France/Italy, 2008)
2. Le silence de Lorna (Lorna's Silence, Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France/Italy, 2008)
3. Azur et Azmar (Azur and Azmar, Michel Ocelot, France, 2006)
4. Milyang (Secret Sunshine, Lee Chang-dong, South Korea, 2007)
5. Stellet licht (Silent Light, Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/France/The Netherlands/Germany, 2007)
6. Hofshat Kaits (My Father, My Lord, David Volach, Israel, 2007)
7. Omiros (Hostage, Constantine Giannaris, Greece, 2005)
8. O' Horten (Bent Hamer, Norway, 2008)
9. Chacun son cinéma (To Each His Own Cinema, Various, France, 2007)
10. Izgnanie (The Banishment, Andrei Zvyagintev, Russia, 2007)

Special mentions:
Katyn (Andrej Wajda, Poland, 2007)
L'année suivante (The Year After, Isabelle Czajka, France, 2006)

I spoke to Constantine Giannaris, director of Omiros (no. 7 in the above list), who highly recommended the film that is my favourite in this section. The Mother and the Whore is simply sublime, full of intellectualisation (and pseudo-intellectual rants), nihilism and lament, culminating in an emotionally devastating and ambiguous ending. I love the title, especially the original one in French.

Cassavetes features heavily in this category, thanks to an ACMI retrospective. I also got to see a few Satyajit Ray films from his retrospective at the Indian Film Festival at the Nova. These are all well-known films below and there's not much I can add to what has already been written about them.

1. La maman et la putain (The Mother and the Whore, Jean Eustace, France, 1973)
2. Moartea domnului Lazarescu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Alexandru Munteanu, Romania, 2005)
3. Shadows (John Cassavetes, USA, 1959)
4. Pather Panchali (Song of the Road, Satyajit Ray, India, 1955)
5. Le ballon rouge (The Red Balloon, Albert Lamorisse, France, 1956)
6. Faces (John Cassavetes, USA, 1968)
7. A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes, USA, 1974)
8. No quarto da Vanda (In Vanda's Room, Pedro Costa, Portugal/Germany/Switzerland/Italy, 2000)
9. La passion de Jeanne d'Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Dreyer, France, 1927)
10. Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, USSR, 1979)

Special mentions:
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes, USA, 1976)
Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, Satyajit Ray, India, 1959)
Kanal (Andrzej Wajda, Poland, 1957)

2008 hasn't been a great year for Australian films. My favourites have been Three Blind Mice (expect to hear about a release date in the new year), Son of a Lion and The Square, though nothing rates high enough to make into any of the above lists.

The year also marks a serious attempt by a player to challenge the paradigm that Australia makes crap films that no-one wants to see. Unfortunately, the tall poppy syndrome - a concept I until recently never used to subscribe to - really kicked in and every critic and his dog was keen to tear Baz Luhrmann off his cocky high horse and make him eat their shit. People are entitled to dislike a film but thhe venom and vitriole that floated around both the print and online media was unparalleled in my experience, and I've lost some faith in the quality of film criticism in this country. I feel it was an opportunity lost and no studio is going to take a risk like that anytime soon, not because the film was that bad, but because of the critical response.

Sure, Australia is a film with problems (but then, so does The Dark Knight), but it also has a lot going for it. A showing metric is that Metacritic ranks critics' reviews of Australia at 53% (quite low) but other users at 7.2/10, almost the same as IMDb (7.3). Here's a case where the critics and the audiences are divided. Unfortunately, the irrational frenzy with which local critics panned the movie would have kept significant numbers away. But those who did see the film obviously enjoyed it. I certainly did, and it improved on a second viewing.

I saw 274 films this year, 241 on the big screen and 33 DVDs. This is slightly down from 2007 (297/283/14). I never used to count DVDs, but I've decided to include them now as I see a few festival screeners. With the Boxing Day releases looking pretty shabby, I'm not expecting to see any more films in a cinema until the New Year, though I'll watch quite a few DVDs to make up for it.

Here's looking to 2009. May the new year bring whatever each of you deserves.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Upcoming events

With Xmas approaching, one might think there's not much action happening film-wise. Actually, there's quite a bit happening approaching and over the holiday period. Aside from theatrical releases, these are my picks of the action, all at ACMI.

ACMI's Setting the Scene exhibition of film design is now open, until Sunday 19 April 2009.

Hola Mexico Film Festival screens at ACMI from Monday 15 December to Sunday 21 December.

Drifters, Dreamers and Cowboys: Country Music on Film, an ACMI season screens from Saturday 26 December to Sunday 4 January.

ACMI's Focus on William Klein, screens from Thursday 22 January to Sunday 1 February 2009.

As part of ACMI's Australian Perspectives series, the Mad Max trilogy screens over three consecutive Saturdays at ACMI at 4pm on 3, 10 and 17 January. Also, Brian Trenchard-Smith's Kung Fu Killers, which features in Not Quite Hollywood screens on Saturday 27 December.

A newly restored print of Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life screens at ACMI over various dates from Monday 15 December to Tuesday 23 December.

For what it's worth, I'm looking forward to the following cinema releases:
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher, USA) - 26 December
  • The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, USA) - 15 January
  • The Class (Entre les murs, Laurent Cantet, France) - 22 January
  • Revolutionary Road (Sam Mendes, USA) - 22 January
  • Milk (Gus Van Sant, USA) - 29 January

Lastly, I don't want to let the day pass without honouring the passing of my son Abhi on this day two years ago. I think of him every day, and he is sorely missed. He'd be 19. I intended to write a personal piece about my experiences, which includes some contributing factors to teenage suicide. Ironically, I wrote about this subject (and others) some ten or fifteen years ago and was published in The Age, as a way of dealing with my then anguish and feelings of helplessness. I don't have time to do something today, but watch this space. I often say (and as SBS implies) that everyone has a story to tell, and I'm no exception.

Just by chance, as I write these words, my iTunes (which has some 3382 songs, and is on shuffle mode) has randomly selected to play Natalie Merchant's King of May, the song that my partner Zoe requested I read at Abhi's funeral.
Farewell today
Travel on now
Be on your way
Go safely there
And never worry, never care
Beyond this day
Farewell tonight
To all joy and to all the life
Go on, go peacefully
We can't keep your majesty
Be on your way
Make may for the
last king of May
And make a cardboard
crown for him
And make your voices one
Praise the crazy
mother's son, who
loved his life
Farewell today
Travel on now
Be on your way
Can't bear the very
thought that we
That we could keep your majesty
Be on your way
Make way for the
last king of May
And make a hole in
the cloud for him
Raise your voices up
Drink your loving cup
To his long life
To his long life
Make way for the
last king of May
Make a hole in the sky for him
And raise your voices up
Lift your loving cup
To his long life
His long life
And raise your voices up
Lift you loving cup
To his long life
To his long life
His long life
His long life

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Week in Review - 7/12/08

  • Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks, USA, 1939)
  • Ceiling Zero (Howard Hawks, USA, 1936)
  • It's a Free World (Ken Loach, UK/Italy/Germay/SpainPoland, 2007)
  • When the Levee Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (Spike Lee, USA, 2006)
Only Angels Have Wings
It was fascinating watching this so close to Australia, which share common periods, aesthetics, characters, plots and even flaws (even if Australia's are more obvious). An enjoyable film, but
nothing special.

Ceiling Zero
I think it was a mistake putting these two Hawks films on the same night as they seemed to share too much in common. I preferred this of the two as it's narrative was more coherent and the film's length was more compact.

It's a Free World
Loach is brilliant and I've never seen anything by him that's not worth seeing. This is not my favourite film by him, but worth seeing nonetheless.

When the Levee Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts
I liked this a lot, though I think it's better suited to television, the medium for which it was made (for HBO). It's designed to be seen in two (or even four) parts, and it drags on a bit much when viewed in one sitting. It's screening as part of ACMI's Focus on Spike Lee, which I'm hoping to see a bit of. When introducing the film, curator Roberta Ciabarra announced that four of the films are brand new prints made especially for this retrospective.

Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, UK/USA, 2008)
You've got to hand it to Danny Boyle - he really knows how to reinvent himself. Nearly every film he makes is a different genre. From thriller (Shallow Grave) to contemporary drug drama/comedy (Trainspotting) to drama (The Beach) to zombies (28 Days Later) to sci-fi (Sunshine), and now romance/drama/thriller with Slumdog Millionaire. This latest outing, set in India, shares some themes with his earlier Millions (2004), a story of some working-class kids who hit the big-time when they find a suitcase of cash, though this latest film is much more ambitious.

In Slumdog Millionaire, Jamal, a poverty-stricken youth, an orphan from the slums of Mumbai, falls under suspicion of cheating the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire when he makes it all the way to the final question, with the top prize of 20 million rupees at stake. How does he know the answers? The film's exploration of this question leads the viewer down various rabbit holes, revealling Jamal's past while giving the audience a view into aspects of contemporary Mumbai culture.

The film has a frenetic pace, with aesthetics similar to City of God. The music is sensational, completely in-your-face. Boyle has gone for a highly stylised and heightened sense of reality, using highly saturated colouration (with matching sub-title backgrounds as a subtle stylistic device). I'm not usually a fan of fast editing, but like the City of God (also set in slums), it works to very good effect here.

The film is unashamedly sentimental and uplifting, but that's not a criticism. In fact, it works quite well. We see life in the slums from a child's perspective, there is a central love story, there is the drama of a life of crime and there is the excitement and suspense that is known to anyone who has watched Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Boyle has packed so many angles into the film that skillfully play out in parallel that the story remains compelling from start to finish.

The game show aspect is really quite fascinating. The set, lighting, music and game structure is virtually indistinguishable from the Australian version. The biggest difference is the compere. Instead of Eddie Maguire and "lock it in Eddie" we have Amitabh Bachchan (played by Feroz Abbas Khan). The actual show is itself dramatic, but portrayed cinematically, it goes to a whole new level of suspense.

The film is highly entertaining and is sure to be popular with arthouse audiences, possibly mainstream audiences also. In fact, this may be Boyle's most successful film yet, though it's not particularly my type of film. It's not in the same league as Trainspotting, but then, I'm a sucker for bleak cinema. Comparisons have been made to other so called “sleeper indie hits” like Juno and Little Miss Sunshine. Slumdog Millionaire is far superior to both those films.

Slumdog Millionaire opens on 18 December, with preview screenings on 12-14 December.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Week in Review - 30/11/08

This weekend has been full on. My work Christmas party was on Saturday, and the weekend pretty much revolved around that and a child's birthday party. I've completely missed the Japanese Film Festival at ACMI as well as the 15 hour screenings of Berlin Alexanderplatz. As I have mentioned, November has been chock-a-block full of films to see, most of which I've missed. When I get my Christmas break, I could watch a film a day, but then there's nothing decent to see in the cinemas. I suppose that's when I'll catch up on a few of the 50 or so DVDs I have that I haven't yet seen.

With the end of the Pedro Costa season at Melbourne Cinémathèque this week, I feel a little sad. I just want the season to continue, even if it means repeating the same films. The man's work is incredible, though not for everyone (many cinephiles may struggle with some of the themes and the scenes). Next week is the start of the Howard Hawks season, which lasts for three weeks before we take recess for the holiday season. I'll miss the last week as I'll be participating in my university graduation ceremony.

I started my Bachelor of Business (Business Information Systems) at RMIT University in 2001 and did the first three years (of four) full-time and the remainder part-time. I had only one subject to complete the degree but needed to put in an exemption. It's taken me three years to get the exemption in and I've not done a subject in that time. I can't wait to have this formality behind me, to have closure. As a fellow student once said: "to finish that which one has started".

Those three years have not been without tumultuous times. My oldest child suffered psychosis and my middle child took his own life (nearly two years ago now). There's been stresses at home and I've taken up learning French at Alliance Française. I've often felt like bowing out of classes, but have kept up my determination for over 18 months now. I figure that if I just stick to it, I'll get to where I want to be. I figure once one bows out, it's all pretty much over. If I put the same time into it as I put into my uni studies, I'd be speaking fluent French by now.

FWIW, I'm quietly happy with my French progress. I still struggle listening to say the French news, but I can get a reasonable understanding of a newspaper article. I can make myself understood to a French person; they just have to speak very slowly back, often more than once. I hope to live in France one day, for at least a year and preferably more. There's something about the country's culture that draws me, and I feel that moving to a foreign culture is an experience and personal challenge I want to have in this life-time.

Slumdog Millionaire
(Danny Boyle, UK/USA, 2008)
No quarto da Vanda (In Vanda's Room, Pedro Costa, Portugal/Germany/Switzerland/Italy, 2000)
Ossos (Bones, Pedro Costa, Portugal/France/Denmark, 1997)
Il y a longtemps que je t'aime (I Have Loved You For So Long, Philippe Claudel, France/Germany, 2008)

  • Bande à part (Band of Outsiders, Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1964)

Slumdog Millionaire
I'll post a review of this film in the first week of December, closer to its release (which is 18 December, and 'sneak previews' on 12-14 December). In short, it's OK and I think most people will like it more than me.

In Vanda's Room
Wow! How did Pedro Costa get a film like this made? Could he have done it today? This is so raw and so bleak, that these questions kept coming into my head while watching this remarkable film. Audiences often think of the films of Alkinos Tsilimidos as bleak, but his are quite upbeat in comparison to Costa's (and that's not a sleight on either director's work, just observation).

The non-professional actors, residents of the Fountainhas slum being filmed, are all extraordinary, especially the two drug-addicted sisters, Vanda and Zita. They spend their lives in Vanda's room, smoking crack and occasionally venturing outside to sell vegetables to the neighbours. Their physical state is deplorable and I found my heart bleeding for them. Words fail me with both this film and Ossos (Bones). These films have been my favourite double of the three week Costa season, which has now concluded. Melbourne Cinémathèque screened all of Costa's feature films and three of his shorts. I feel like I need to re-watch these films to truly appreciate them. Costa is an awesome film-maker.

I'd have preferred to have seen Costa's films in chronological order, especially the trilogy of films featuring the Fountainhas slum. Of the trilogy, no. 3 screened on week 1, and no. 2 screened before no. 1 on week 3. C'est la vie ! In Vanda's Room is nearly three hours long, so it was good that Bones is not too long (94 minutes). It makes for a long night, especially when one has work the next morning.

Bones is nowhere near as bleak as In Vanda's Room. There is more colour and the people's lives have a little more hope. I can't say it's a better film, just less downbeat. Mind you, the story is no Hollywood theme: suffice to say that the Dardenne brothers' L'enfant (The Child) covers similar territory. These Costa films simply have to be seen, to be experienced.

I Have Loved You For So Long
You'll enjoy this film much more if, like me, you know nothing about it prior to seeing it. There is a central mystery, and the unravelling of it could have resulted in a much stronger film if it hadn't played out conventionally at the end. Suffice to say, I'm not giving any plot details here.

Kristin Scott Thomas is impressive in the central role of this film. As an English-speaking actress, her French-speaking seemed impeccable, though her character in the film is written as having an English accent, so obviously the French would pick it up. This is perhaps the best role I've seen her in, though I generally haven't been impressed with her. This role required a fairly repressed individual, and as Thomas' acting is generally quite wooden, she is perhaps perfect for the role. This probably sounds less kind than I mean it to be, because she does play the part well.

Thomas appears with little makeup for most of the film, and seeing her bravely bared before the camera like this gives the film a visual rawness that enhances the verisimilitude of the story. For most of the film, there are unexpected turns that feel natural rather than being contrived twists. After about the three-quarter mark, the initial setup is, well, I'll call it cheapened, though what it's doing is catering to populism. I could start to predict what some of the outcomes would be and the story really tugs at the heart strings.

The French are excellent at producing gutsy arthouse films, of which this is not one. But nor is it a middle-of-the-road family melodrama (which I usually hate). This is a solid drama, with some great arthouse aesthetics that should be very popular with most arthouse audiences (think Nova or Como). The film's compromises are what make it accessible and enjoyable, but left me feeling just ever so slightly disappointed.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Three Blind Mice wins another award

My MIFF newsletter informs me that Matthew Newton has just won the Best Screenplay Award at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival for his feature debut Three Blind Mice, my favourite local film of the year. This follows the London Film Festival's awarding Newton the FIPRESCI International Critics Award. There may be others, but I'm not sure.

Three Blind Mice has a strong ensemble cast and terrific screenplay. I've heard first-hand that the film is about to secure a local distributor, and second-hand that it may get a February release. I look forward to seeing it again.

What a load of ...


My internet start page is iGoogle which, for those that don't know, includes customisation of the basic Google website to include all kinds of handy little tools. I have embedded applets for an online dictionary, Wikipedia, Babelfish Translation, French radio and RSS feeds from Le Monde, and ABC News. Among other useful little gadgets, I also have these world clocks, which you can customise.

This afternoon, the Google ad (for 2008: God's Final Witness) in the applet caught my eye and I decided to click the link and check it out. Can you believe that in this day and age, we still have these doomsday sayers? The link takes us to a page that declares "The Prophesised End-Time Revealed".

It goes on to declare:
"From now until the latter part of 2008, many prophecies are going to begin to be fulfilled, especially the Seven Thunders of the Book of Revelation, which the apostle John saw but was restricted from recording. Those thunders are revealed in this book, as well as detailed accounts of the final three and one-half years of man's self-rule on earth, which are recorded in the account of the Seventh Seal of Revelation.

Some of these prophecies concern the demise of the United States over the next year, which will be followed by man's final world war. This last war will be the result of clashing religions and the governments they sway. Billions will die! This time will far exceed even the very worst times in all human history.

As these events unfold, the world will increasingly become aware of the authenticity of the words in this book and realize that Ronald Weinland has been sent by God as His end-time prophet.

This book is primarily directed to the people of the three major religions of the world (Islam, Judaism and Christianity), whose roots are in the God of Abraham. Ronald Weinland has been sent to all three."
Go check out the website. It's a blast. Heck, they even have it in Dutch, Italian and French. You can download the free book. You know you wanna be saved...

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Three Weeks in Review - 23/11/08

So much has happened, so little time to write about it. I've been sick, I've been busy, I've been watching films as usual. Today I saw Francis Ford Coppola's Youth Without Youth, and I say fuck the luke-warm reviews and just go see it. We need more films like this, films outside the square, films that challenge conventional narrative, films that challenge an audience. This is screening exclusively at the Kino and may not last long. Race out and see it while you can.

Another cinema release that really stands out is Hunger. Again, just go see it. Don't think about it, don't go on what you think it's about. It's a remarkable film that, regardless of what you perceive of its subject matter, it demands attention.

I watched a couple of films for the Human Rights Art and Film Festival, but was very sick at the time and regret that I didn't get the opportunity to post reviews of the films (Chicago 10 and The Nothing Men). I'd have liked to have seen a number of films at this festival, and also attend a number of the forums, but time just didn't allow.

While I was sick, my son had his 8th birthday. I took him and a car full of his friends to Luna Park and a Johnnie To film at ACMI. It was a really educational experience, seeing how the different boys related to a G-rated film with sub-titles. Because of my illness, I was unable to write about this subject, but it's on my to-do list. I even interviewed my son on video; if I get the chance, I'll edit that and post it with an article.

The program for the Festival of Jewish Cinema also looked great. I managed just the one, My Father, My Lord, another extraordinary film. It has little dialogue, filmed beautifully with a really moving story about love and loss, parents and children. Top stuff.

A top film of the last three weeks is Gonzo: the Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, which has a separate post and is still screening at the Nova. Again, catch it while you can. We seem to be having a wave of unusually good films on theatrical release. With the so-called festive season coming up, there'll be a vacuum of good films real soon.

  • Gonzo: the Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (Alex Gibney, USA, 2008)
  • Comment je me suis disputé… (ma vie sexuelle) (My Sex Life… or How I Got into an Argument, Arnaud Desplechin, France, 1996)
  • Bi shui han shan duo ming jin (The Enigmatic Case, Johnnie To, Hong Kong, 1980)
  • Gat sing gung jiu (The Fun, the Luck and the Tycoon, Johnnie To, Hong Kong, 1989)
  • O sangue (The Blood, Pedro Costa, Portugal, 1989)
  • Juventude em marcha (Colossal Youth, Pedro Costa, Portugal/France/Switzerland, 2006)
  • Hunger (Steve McQueen, Ireland/UK, 2008)
  • Hofshat Kaits (My Father, My Lord, David Volach, Israel, 2007)
  • Casa de lava (Pedro Costa, Portugal/France/Germany, 1995)
  • Où gît votre sourire enfoui ? (Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, Pedro Costa, France/Portugal, 2001)
  • Australia (Baz Luhrmann, Australia/USA, 2008)
  • Youth Without Youth (Francis Ford Coppola, USA/Germany/Italy/France/Romania, 2007)
  • Chicago 10 (Brett Morgen, USA, 2007)
  • The Nothing Men (Mark Fitzpatrick, Australia, 2008)

Baz Luhrmann's Australia

Australia (Baz Luhrmann, Australia, 2008)
I’d like to preface my review of Baz Luhrmann’s Australia with some discussion of the film’s context. I’m generally not a fan of blockbuster films nor epics, and Australia is both. I’m quite selective about the media previews I attend, as time is usually an issue and, unlike a general cinema screening, you can’t select your session. There are a number of reasons that I went out of my way to see Australia.

Luhrmann has been particularly ambitious with Australia. While it’s not a genre of film that usually interests me, the project he has embarked upon has a significance beyond the film itself. Luhrmann is attempting a breakthrough film, something that hasn’t really been attempted. He’s taking on Hollywood on its own terms, playing their game, and attempting to win over both the local audience and ultimately an international audience.

Luhrmann wants Australians to change how they look at local films. People often roll their eyes when it comes to Australian films. I know, I often do it myself. He is unashamedly putting our culture (or a reimagining of it) before us and saying, “let’s be proud of our culture, of our way, of our stories… let’s change the perception that ‘Australian film’ means ‘boring’.” For this, I admire him.

The reimagining of our culture may be a total fantasy, but if the uniqueness of Australian culture is imbued/imbibed, in a way that we can feel good about ourselves, and have a good time, then that’s got to be a something good.

But wait, didn’t this film cost something like $130 million to make? No local film can recoup that kind of serious moolah; Luhrmann has clearly made this film for a global (or at least a US) audience, of which conquering the Australian market is just one step in a larger battle plan. The marketing of the film has been inspired by the Hollywood model. This film was being hyped before filming had even started some two years ago. Even the film’s title is an audacious emulation of American-style movie-marketing, which often proudly proclaims “America-this”, “New York-that” or just plain “Chicago”, “Philadelphia”, etc.

I’ve spoken personally to local directors, as well as questioned others at post-film Q&As. I have concluded that generally, foreign distributors are only interested in Australian films that enable them to market our films with just the type of clichés that Paul Hogan exploited with Crocodile Dundee, for example. I sense that Luhrmann is going for broke with Australia, crafting a film that is designed to appeal to as wide a global audience as possible, and perhaps through its desired success, lead a resurgence of interest in Australian films overseas. Much of the Australian film industry could reap the benefits if this strategy is successful. Again, I laud this attempt. For these reasons, I decided that Australia was a film I wanted to see, regardless of whether I like it or not. So, the verdict?

I like it, a lot. On most (but not all) accounts, Australia beats Hollywood at its own game. It uses over-the-top caricatures like those in Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom to excellent comedic effect, with Spielberg-like family adventure (think Indiana Jones) and blends in indigenous themes used in Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence and the magic and story-telling in Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes. All this with an aesthetic that also recalls epics like Gone With the Wind. The result is a great romp that both reinforces and reimagines Australian mythology.

The film looks absolutely fantastic, with excellent use of the widescreen to frame the landscape and the characters. I’m familiar with the area in which the film was shot, and I’ve often commented on how beautiful it is. For example, it’s great to see boab trees depicted, which are specific to the Kimberleys. The film is a joy to watch.

There is more CGI in use than one can detect. I’m not a big fan of CGI, but I didn’t feel it detracted from the film (like it did in say, Lord of the Rings, which relied on it way too heavily). It doesn't draw attention to itself and is used to support the film, as it should.

Some critics bemoan the clichés. Oh for fucksake, the whole film is one giant cliché and that's an intrinsic part of its appeal. This is fantasy, it's caricature, it's over the top, it's what people expect of a blockbuster. Others have commented on the use of the word “crikey” as if it’s a Steve Irwin rip-off. I find this petty nitpicking. Crikey is a term I grew up with; my mum used it all the time, and its use was much more common in previous times. I think Luhrmann is effectively tapping into that Banjo Patterson sort of Australian mythology, with a kind of cheeky wink at Irwin without resorting to Irwin’s buffoon-like use of the word.

When Nicole Kidman’s character is first introduced, it is with an over-acted performance that I initially cringed at. Kidman-haters will have a field day with this. However, when the same scene is replayed from a different perspective, it then seemed quite in context. From that point on, I had no problems with her acting at all, and am impressed with her ability to do comedy. By the way, that trailer that had Kidman doing that “whoosh” thing really didn’t do the film justice. I had no problems when that scene played out.

I generally don’t like Hugh Jackman as an actor, but he played the part of The Drover with gusto and was perfect for the role. My favourite characters are Nullah (Brandon Walters), the young aboriginal boy from whose perspective the film’s story is told, and King George (David Gulpilil), the boy’s grandfather who plays an almost guardian angel-type role for the boy. Their stories are the most moving and I love what Luhrmann has done with these characters.

There’s an extensive support cast that includes Jack Thompson (in one of his best roles in a long time), Tony Barry (as a dead-ringer for Chips Rafferty), David Wenham, Bryan Brown, Barry Otto, Ben Mendelsohn, Ray Barrett, Bill Hunter, John Jarratt, among many others.
“Here I am, this blockbuster-sneering film-snob, getting caught up in the emotions of a highly contrived film. Luhrmann must be doing something right”
The film is unashamedly sentimental. You know where the film is going, you know you’re being manipulated, yet I still couldn’t help shedding a tear at all the right spots. Here I am, this blockbuster-sneering film-snob, getting caught up in the emotions of a highly contrived film. Luhrmann must be doing something right.

I only had four hours sleep last night and was a bit concerned whether I'd stay awake for the 165 minutes. The film captured my attention and I didn't nod off at all, though there was a flat spot mid-way. This was when the film reaches a kind of natural conclusion, the end of a chapter. Then the film’s main flaws kick in. It goes into epic-mode and, in doing so, loses the momentum and coherency of the first half. It also loses some of the comedic edge.

Luhrmann was reportedly working on the editing of the film right up to the night before the film’s premiere. I can guess the parts he was working on, and it didn’t seem as well put together as the first half. It’s probably too late for Australian audiences, but hopefully the studio will allow Luhrmann to tweak the film before it is released overseas. I didn’t find these flaws by any means fatal, but I’m sure it’s what some critics will focus on.

In conclusion, Luhrmann has crafted a film that demands a viewing, and it really needs to be seen on the big screen. It will appeal to a wide audience and I’m sure my 8-year old will enjoy it immensely. It’s a lot of fun, a lot of adventure, good old-fashioned story-telling. It’s contains some nice messages, without being preachy or ramming political correctness down our throats. It succeeds in being unashamedly entertaining, poking fun at Australian mythology while also reinforcing and reimagining it. I enjoyed the film much more than I expected. I’m sure it will do well here, and hopefully it will do well overseas.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Human Rights Arts & Film Festival 2008

One of my favourite aspects of cinema is the humanistic, social and other issues that are raised, either explicitly or implicitly. Such matters give rise to discussion of those issues in the context of what amounts to my favourite art form. It's probably one of the reasons I started writing about film in the first place, culminating in this blog. I also take every opportunity I can to attend Q&A sessions, which invariably add new insights and perspectives to any given film.

The Human Rights Arts & Film Festival is screening in Melbourne from 13 - 23 November* at the Kino and RMIT Capitol cinemas (as if we didn't already have enough choice of films screening this month). Not only does the breadth of films look impressive, but nearly all of them include post-screening Q&A sessions and panel discussions. The list of speakers is awesome, including such prominent personalities as Dee McLachlan (director of The Jammed), comedienne Corinne Grant, Waleed Aly (one of my favourite writers and speakers on recent social issues), Tim Costello, Julian Burnside QC (president of Liberty Victoria, who has acted pro bono on several human rights cases, including the Tampa incident) and journalist Martin Flanagan (who once interviewed me in my home many years ago - I'm still waiting for the return of some photographic slides I lent him).

Chicago 10 (Brett Morgen, The Kid Stays in the Picture) opens the festival, as it did for Sundance 2007. It's a 'creative documentary' about the Chicago Convention of 1968 and its aftermath, that visually recalls Richard Linklater's Waking Life and Ari Folman's Waltz With Bashir. This looks terrific.

The festival program is ambitious, with films from around the world. Some are documentaries, some dramatic fiction and many shorts. Subjects covered include sexual slavery (Trade, fiction, Marco Kreuzpainter, Germany/USA and Behind Forgotten Eyes, documentary, Anthony Gilmore, Korea), the Dalai Lama and Tibet (The Unwinking Gaze, documentary, Joshua Dugdale, UK), workplace tolerance and rights (The Nothing Men, fiction, Mark Fitzpatrick, Australia), homelessness (Kicking It, documentary, Susan Koch & Jeff Werner, USA), justice (USA vs Al-Arian, animated documentary, Line Halvorsen, Norway) and many others.

Several sessions are accompanied by shorts, and there are four dedicated short film sessions: Screen Dreaming (indigenous Australian stories), Par Avion (international shorts), Reel Change (short films on the impact of climate change) and In Our Backyard (Australian shorts).

The entire program has been added to my Calendar of Film Events which you will find at the very bottom of this page (click the button beneath the calendar to subscribe to it), or you can view the full version.

Check the HRAFF website for full details.

* Ignore those Melbourne dates in the flyer above - they're wrong.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

And the winner is...

... the United States of America. And the rest of the world.

Never have I seen so much interest in an US election. Never have I been so keen to see the outcome of a US election.

When almost a year ago Kevin Rudd ousted the weasel, I felt relief. With the ousting of the mega-fascist, war-mongering Republicans, I feel joy. Congratulations Obama.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Week in Review - 2/11/08

  • La sentinelle (Arnaud Desplechin, France, 1992)
  • En jouant 'Dans la compagnie des hommes' (Playing "In the Company of Men", Arnaud Desplechin, France, 2003)
  • Etz Limon (Lemon Tree, Eran Riklis, Israel/Germany/France, 2008)
  • Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie (The Saragossa Manuscript, Woyciech Has, Poland, 1965)
Desplechin's La sentinelle & Playing "In the Company of Men"
It occurred to me within the last couple of days, that my experience with the cinema of Arnaud Desplechin somewhat mirrors my discovery of the music of REM. I first heard them in 1992, when Losing My Religion was blitzing the airwaves. At the time, I was losing my religion and, though the song has nothing to do with that, it took on special meaning for me. Yet when I first heard it, I couldn't work out if I loved it or hated it. I now understand that REM's music is so densely multi-layered, working simultaneously on different levels, and it was so unlike any music I was accustomed to, that I was unable to digest it immediately. In fact, I heard the song some 40 or more times before I started to realise that I absolutely loved it. It became my favourite song for many years, and REM remain one of my favourite bands.

It's too soon to say that Desplechin will have a similar effect on me, but I get the sense that his work is so dense, so complex, so unique that I have no common reference points, no easy way of digesting everything that is projected on-screen. Having seen two of his films last week, I was a bit more prepared this week, and I felt more at ease with his work. At ease? It's not something you really feel for Desplechin's films, but I can't think how better to explain myself.

La sentinelle is an elusive film (aren't they all?), Playing "In the Company of Men" less so. I enjoyed them both, but like last week's films, I feel I need to see them again to digest them. I like Desplechin's films, I'm fascinated by them, but I can't say yet that I'm at the point I got to with REM. I do not yet love them.

Lemon Tree
Superficially, this is the type of film one typically sees at the Como. It's a fairly standard piece, a David versus Goliath, with a Palestinian widow going head-to-head against the Israeli Defense Minister, who orders the latter's 50 year old lemon grove be demolished in case it provides cover to terrorists. What raises it above the normal pulp is that it represents a shift in Israeli cinema that allows for a bit more honest introspection. It questions the morality of modern Israeli security policies such as the building of the wall (reminiscent of Berlin, and everything that wall represented), forced evacuations and destruction of Palestinian properties. The film didn't completely win me over, but I was impressed by its honesty. It's worth a look.

The Saragossa Manuscript
An absurdist piece, reminiscent of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, and made around the same period. I like absurdist cinema, but this one is very long, and it really demands repeat viewings to digest it all. It contains stories within stories within stories, and not meant to be understood. One character even admits to being confused by the convoluted stories himself. It was OK, but I can't see myself rushing to watch it again anytime soon.

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (Alex Gibney, USA, 2008)
Until Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), which won best documentary Oscar this year, I'd not noticed the name Alex Gibney, though I saw and liked his earlier Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005). Knowing nothing about Hunter S. Thompson, but intrigued by the aura that surrounds the mention of his name, I thought the defacto long weekend that Cup Day brings was a good opportunity to see this new documentary.

Regular attendees would know that ACMI often has single screenings of films, with sometimes disappointing attendances. Gonzo has no less than 21 screenings programmed, three on the day I attended. Expecting maybe 40 or so, I was a little surprised to see the smaller Cinema 1 (capacity about 190) almost full, and I'm told there's been at least one sell-out session. The crowd was mostly young (20s and 30s), and I'm wondering why so many of this age group know enough about Thompson to come and see this, but not to the plethora of other worthy films at ACMI. Thompson clearly has a big reputation among a certain fringe demographic.

I'm no expert on documentary as a film genre per se - I certainly don't go to many at the cinema - but it seems to me there's a number of factors that combine to make one good or not. The starting point is a good subject. Anna Broinowski's Forbidden Lie$ (2007) is compelling, not so much because it is well-made, but because of its compelling subject. Gonzo has both. Thompson is so fascinating - his life story, his writing and his social impact are each a worthy subject. It's Gibney's putting together what must have been a mountain of source material into a coherent two hour digest that makes the film. I found it educational, entertaining and thoroughly absorbing.

Gibney picked a cracker with Thompson. The guy was a real live wire, an eccentric, a man on the edge. Substance abuse was a constant in his life since at least his late teens, while still at high school. Combined with an undying anger and a brutal frankness, he lived his life as if there were no tomorrow. Alcoholism is, after all, a form of suicide, though it was the self-administration in 2005 of a bullet from one of his many firearms that ended Thompson's life. While that may be seen to be tragic - and everyone that knew Thompson well during his last twenty years seemed to know that that was how he was going to die - the real tragedy was his addictions, the destructive power they had over him and how that affected both his work and his relationships.

The film's screening in the build-up to the US elections is quite ironic. Thompson was very depressed about the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004, a fact that must have contributed to his decision to depart this world. In this respect, I could really relate to Thompson. Like the US, we had our own brand of neo-fascism, championed by a weasel in the form of John Howard. Many times I felt despondent over his political success. What was most depressing was not that one person or one political party could implement such nasty and self-interested policies, but that those people who were most disadvantaged by them rewarded him at successive elections. It's for that reason that, in spite of the Rudd government's shortcomings, I welcome them regardless.

Fortunately, the US puts a time-limit on their despots, though nothing would have saved Bush from today's election. His war-mongering and his leading the country - indeed the world - to the edge of the economic abyss would have sufficed to have him evicted from the White House regardless. Hopefully the next twenty-four hours or so will see the ushering in of a new era with Barack Obama at the helm.

There was something primal or savage about Thompson. "You can't handle the truth", shouts Nicholson's character in A Few Good Men. And that pretty much sums up society. Paul Keating and Mark Latham were both castigated for their brutal honesty. The former has hit the news again this week for just that - daring to challenge the myth of the birth of the Australian character at Gallipoli. It's certainly a charming myth, but a lie nonetheless.

Thompson didn't care whether we could handle the truth or not. He proclaimed it anyway, or at least he proclaimed it as he saw it. Perhaps the drugs and alcohol gave him the swagger to not give a shit. He was smart enough to know bullshit when he saw it, and truth be told, the bullshit is everywhere and no-one has the guts to say it. Thompson did.

One of the most memorable lines in the film was when his writing on politics was described as the most accurate but least factual. I find the concept both amusing and inspirational. I'm no Gonzo, but I might try shooting a bit more from the hip like Thompson. If you get the chance, see the film. Great stuff.

[EDIT: this film has a theatrical release, screening at the Nova. It opened today, 6 November]

By the way...
Ironically, just before I saw Gonzo, I turned up for the viral "Frozen at Flinders St. Station". I stumbled upon this online some time ago and planned to attend to film the event. I remembered seeing this once before on the evening news, with hundreds of people freezing at the same time, then going back to normal after five minutes, as if nothing had happened.

It was strangely surreal with actual commuters quietly making their way through the maze of human statues in silence. Police patrolled bemused, confused.

I was blown away by how many people who also attended; they were by far the majority of those at Flinder's St. Station. My guess is that there was well over a thousand people participating. I appear in the below video for 12 seconds, from 3:25 - I'm in the background, to the left of the ticket box, in black and grey motorcycle gear. When the clock hit 7:00pm, I spontaneously decided to participate rather than document, though I'd like to film it next time around.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Week in Review - 26/10/08

  • Choke (Clark Gregg, USA, 2008)
  • Esther Kahn (Arnaud Desplechin, France/UK, 2000)
  • Rois et reine (Kings & Queen, Arnaud Desplechin, France, 2004)
  • Man on Wire (James Marsh, UK/USA, 2008)
Esther Kahn and Kings & Queen
I feel inadequate commenting on these remarkable films, the first of a three-week Arnaud Desplechin season at Melbourne Cinémathèque. Desplechin's style is certainly idiosyncratic and, while I found them (especially Esther Kahn) very moving, I think I was perhaps too tired to appreciate, absorb, analyse and understand them as much as they deserve. I'm hoping I'll formulate more of a considered opinion after this week's screenings of La Sentinelle and Playing "In The Company of Men".

Man on Wire
I'm not big on documentaries. Generally, I find they're a medium that's best suited for the small screen, though there are exceptions (Waltz With Bashir is a recent example, and I think Errol Morris' aesthetics are a big screen must. Seeing Philippe Petit, the subject of James Marsh's latest film, Man on Wire, on Denton's Enough Rope on Monday, and hearing good things about the film, I decided to give it a go. I wasn't disappointed.

James Marsh is a director I admire immensely. His previous film The King (with Gael Garcia Bernal, William Hurt, Paul Dano and Laura Harring) is a gutsy effort one of my favourite films of 2006. This documentary has not just an excellent subject, but is told by an excellent story-teller. Petit himself collaborated closely with Marsh, and he too has a strong sense of how to tell a story.

There are a number of other reasons that this film works so well: Petit is an entertainer, a showman. He had a vision of what he wanted to achieve and he made and kept a record of the planning of those achievements (such as the walking the wire between the towers of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, the Harbour Bridge in Sydney and finally, the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York). His sense of rebellion, of doing the outrageous was so overwhelming that his planning for the WTC towers took on the magnitude and sense of a bank heist.

The film is thrilling right from the start. The way the story unfolds, we feel we are privy to the plans as co-conspirators to what the film calls "the artistic crime of the century". It's not a bad description. Music is used to good effect, adding to ambience and supporting the story-telling as it should.

Marsh has assembled most of Petit's co-conspirators and their vivid and emotional recollections, even after all these years have passed, is particularly moving. There is a sense at the end of the film, that Petit's friends felt betrayed or used by Petit. This is touched upon but not explored.

Finally, the fact that the Twin Towers are no longer there, and the manner of their departure (which is itself somewhat controversial) adds a poignancy to the film. This is a film that really should be seen on the big screen. I loved it, and so did the missus and kid (yes, it's a good film to take kids to).

Monday, October 27, 2008

Russian Resurrection 2008

The Russian Resurrection 2008 film festival opens in Melbourne on Wednesday evening with veteran director Karen Shakhnazarov's latest film, Vanished Empire. The festival honours Shakhnazarov with a retrospective that includes seven earlier works: Zero City, We Are Jazz Men, American Daughter, Rider Named Death, Courier, The Assassin of the Tsar and Day of the Full Moon. A second retrospective features Russian fantasy films Amphibian Man and Letters from a Deadman. Other than Vanished Empire, the festival includes 10 films, most notably (for me, at least) is The Banishment by Andrei Zvyagintev (The Return, 2003).

Vanished Empire (Ischeznuvshaya imperiya, Karen Shakhnazarov, Russia, 2008)
This is a beautiful-looking film, technically proficient in every respect. It's an homage to the Russia of times past, to the days of the Soviet Union. The protagonist, Sergei, is a narcissistic first-year university student who is more interested in the Rolling Stones, vodka and bedding girls than studying. Sergei is a mere teenager, of a similar age to what Shakhnazarov would have been in the year of the film's setting, 1973, so one suspects there is something personal in this story.

This film should appeal immensely to a mainstream audience, but left me a little cold. I found it a little contrived, particularly with the western soundtrack and also because I couldn't empathise with the main character. Plausibility was a little stretched at times. The strong points are the excellent visuals and the cultural depictions, such as the cars of the day.

The Banishment (Izgnanie, Andrei Zvyagintev, Russia, 2007)
I have only just learnt that Andrei Zvyagintev's The Return was his feature film debut. Now, I've got to say it really impressed me with it's sparse and elusive narrative, filled with mystery and ambiguity. It is visually spectacular, with a strong Eastern European aesthetic that one can't look away from. The Banishment is no less a film.

This is a much more ambitious effort than Zvyagintev's debut. Again he has crafted a story that is highly enigmatic. It stars Konstantin Lavronenko, who played the role of the absent father returned in The Return. Alex is a man with a shady past and his brother Mark (Aleksandr Baluyev) is of the same ilk. When Alex's wife, Vera (Maria Bonnevie), reveals she is pregnant and that he is not the father, a sequence of events unfolds that will have you on the edge of your seat. "If you want to kill, kill. If you want to forgive, forgive", says Mark.

The tension is palpable, magnified by the sparse dialogue. In one sense, words are not needed as the body language says it all. Yet in another, the inability of the protagonists to bring out into the open what needs to be said leads to unforseen consequences. This is both thematically similar to Nuri Bilge Ceylan's similarly excellent Three Monkeys and stylistically they also share much in common. As in Ceylan's films, Zvyagintev shows great confidence in telling a story, taking his time to create a palpable ambience. At 157 minutes, the film is quite long, but always engaging.

The cinematography is stunning throughout, with excellent use of the widescreen. There is one tracking shot in particular that left me breathless as the camera seemingly floated through space. I can recall only twice where the camera movement impressed me so: the caravan sequence in Noise and the various tracking shots in Soy Cuba. The use of darkness, light and shade are used to great effect. The music is haunting, reminding me of the gothic sounds of the music of Enigma. It renders the film with a sense of tragedy of biblical proportions.

Zvyagintev is a magnificent talent that just can't be ignored. If you see only one Russian film this year, make it The Banishment.

The Russian Resurrection film festival screens at Palace Como Cinema from 29 October to 5 November.

Vanished Empire is the Opening Night film, screening Wed 29 November, 7.00pm.
The Banishment
screens on Sun 2 November, 9.10pm.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

November - it's gonna be one of those months

Take a look at my Film Calendar for November, will you (click on the image to see it in full size, though unfortunately Blogger reduces the size of the image). We've all heard the term, "When it rains, it pours", but this is bloody crazy. We've got the Russian Film Festival (formal name is Russian Resurrection, in purple) at the Como, while at ACMI there's both the Festival of Jewish Cinema (with films from around the world, in orange), a Focus on Johnnie To (in blue) and the Buddhist Film Festival (in tan). There's numerous other screenings, such as the Pedro Costa season at Melbourne Cinémathèqe, Fassbinder's 15 hours of Berlin Alexanderplatz at ACMI et al. I've left off the new cinema releases - and there's a heap of these - because it just ridiculously congests the calendar.

Now, though we effectively have a long weekend with Cup Day, I know I've got a number of other events on during November, like birthdays and other family events, so I'm going to be lucky to see 20% or so of what I want to (which is most of what's on offer). Then, come December, aside from new releases, the calendar is looking pretty bare. Ah, such is life. Maybe I'll get to watch some of the 50 or so unseen DVDs I've got sitting there waiting for a rainy day...

BTW, I'm not going into details here, but a must-see tip for Russian Resurrection: The Banishment (by the director of the similarly classy The Return). More later.

And all these dates are viewable in my Google Film Calendar at the bottom of this page. You can subscribe to this calendar by clicking on the button at the bottom of the calendar. Then you'll see a wider version of the calendar. Note that you can customise your view of the calendar, even while you're looking at it on my blog.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Choke (Clark Gregg, USA, 2008)
Choke is actor Clark Gregg's writer-directorial debut, with a screen adaptation of a novel by Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club). I suspect that connection will draw many people to see Choke, but really they're very different films. First, Clark Gregg is not David Fincher, secondly this is a very different story.

Apparently, the story is semi-autobiographical, but I don't intend to go into the details of what parts are autobiographical, which are metaphorical, and which represent the experiences of those close to Palahniuk. I don't find it particularly relevant, but if you're interested, you can Google that yourself (or check out this article in The Age).

There's a lot happening in Choke, and the film attempts to get around this by depending too heavily on Rockwell's voiceover narration. It might have worked well with Edward Norton in Fight Club, but seems both a bit heavy-handed here and it detracts from the coherence. What the... ? The whole point of narration is to improve coherence, a shortcut alternative to depicting everything on-screen by relaying a character's thoughts.

I found the film a little disappointing. It looks good, it sounds good, the acting is good (Sam Rockwell is always good value, and the rest of the cast is also fine). The story is quirky, and to some, that could be code for where the film doesn't work.

The quirkiness factor comes in right from the start with just too many competing themes that feel forced (à la Little Miss Sunshine). There's the sex-addiction, and the attendance at group therapy sessions (a good place to get laid, apparently). Then there's the heritage theme park where Rockwell's character, Victor, plays a part alongside his best pal, Denny (a charismatic Brad William Henke), also a sex addict. There's the ruse Victor pulls in restaurants, pretending to choke, in order to get the sympathy of strangers. There's the descent into dementia by Victor's mother (Anjelica Huston), who may hold the key to some mysteries about Victor's identity. And there's the complexity that Paige Marshall (well-acted by Kelly Macdonald) brings in the form of a potential love interest.

On the surface, that's a lot of ground to cover, and Gregg does a not too bad job as first-time director. I'm sure a lot of people will find this film a lot more enjoyable than I did; the success of films like Juno and Little Miss Sunshine is testament to that. For me, there were many elements that in isolation may have been good, but didn't come together successfully as a whole. The editing of the film may be at least partially to blame, but ultimately, Gregg has been a little too ambitious and hasn't quite succeeded in sewing all the bits together as well as he intended. There's a twist at the end that I found a little weak and conventional, but I'm not giving that away. To the film's credit - and you'd expect this from a Palahniuk story - it's unconventional.

Choke opens on October 30.