Monday, June 30, 2008

Don't Talk Back

ACMI's Australian Perspectives screenings are a terrific way to catch up on the history of Australian cinema. Screening most Saturdays at 4pm, they afford a rare opportunity to see films both well-known and obscure. Often they are accompanied by Q&A sessions.

In recent months, ACMI has partnered with the Australian Film Critics Association (AFCA, of which I am a member) to present selected films of local significance. The next AFCA/ACMI screening is Yakkety Yak by Dave Jones, screening at 4pm on Sat 12 July 2008. From ACMI's website:
Inspired by films such as Fellini's 8 1/2 and Truffaut's Day for Night, Dave Jones' Yakkety Yak (1974) follows a filmmaker and university lecturer (played by the director himself) as he attempts to make a film in the basement of a building. It's literally a classic underground comedy in which a group of people fight over the logistics of making a truly collective, revolutionary and existential movie. When original intentions get sidetracked, all attempts to set things straight result in a different - but strangely similar - script. Also starring John Flaus.

Followed by a panel discussion hosted by AFCA.
In the words of the director, the film was "produced on a $4000-and-change budget, shot in a week, directed by someone who wasn't sure what he was doing, and starring a pudgy guy who'd never acted before (or since)." See the director's notes on the film.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


We know right from the start that Happy-Go-Lucky is a very different Mike Leigh film. The cue from the almost clichéd opening credits suggests a light-hearted comedy. And metaphorically, Leigh gives us a cheeky wink when in the first scene, the protagonist, Poppy, walks into a bookshop, picks up a book called “The Road to Reality” and says with a laugh “we don’t want to be going there!”

In a sense, Happy-Go-Lucky is a tale of three very different but inter-related teachers and their pupils. There’s a passionate Spanish flamenco dance teacher (Karina Fernandez), there’s Scott (Eddie Marsan), a depressive driving instructor, but mostly it’s about Poppy (Sally Hawkins), an impossibly exuberant primary school teacher.

Poppy is 30, single and sharing a flat with her long-time friend, Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), also a teacher. Nothing seems to get Poppy down, and she always sees the bright side of things. When she takes up driving, she gets Scott, her polar opposite and the instructor from hell. He always finds something to complain about: an earlier student, traffic cameras, multiculturalism, anything. He does have one thing in common with Poppy – he declares that he’s never given up on a student, and she doesn’t want to give up on him.

While Poppy could be dismissed as loony, and Scott could never survive as an instructor, Leigh has imbued his characters with so much grounded reality that we can believe in them. The dialogue is superb, with long takes that highlight the actors’ impressive performances. It’s easy to single out Sally Hawkins and Eddie Marsan, however the support actors are all excellent as well. We get a good sense of each character even if we see little of them, like the flamenco teacher, a chiropractor, a homeless man and Poppy’s friends and family.

Happy-Go-Lucky is quite an accomplishment by Leigh. Normally a master of bleakness, he has crafted a colourful story that will appeal to mainstream audiences who wouldn’t get within a stone’s throw of many of his films, yet should satisfy his loyal fans.

And colourful it certainly is. The visuals are a feast for the eyes, akin to the films of Almodóvar. Poppy’s clothing, décor, workplace and hangouts are all full of bright hues. The music is light and at times carnivalesque. Poppy is drawn to the light, so to speak. She trampolines weekly, takes up flamenco (the teacher is used to great comic effect) and socialises with her friends.

The comedy works well because it has a basis in reality. Even the bleak characters are funny. But unlike Hollywood, laughs are not had at their expense. Leigh imbues his characters with complexity and shows a genuine compassion even for the most miserable. Scott is revealed as a vile racist yet he shows some insights. Poppy is an optimist to the max but perhaps all is not what it seems.

The film doesn’t shy away from social issues we’ve come to expect from the director, like racism, mental illness, childhood development and more. Yet Leigh doesn’t preach and these themes are always in the background. As he says in a Q&A about the film:

“The one thing I shouldn’t do (and you wouldn’t want me to do) is patronise the audience and to start over-explaining things that can quite happily sit implicitly and have their sense of being real and meaningful without explanations.”

This is one of the many strengths of the film. It allows a viewer to take it on whatever level one chooses. Leigh doesn’t try to answer any social questions, but doesn’t shy from them either. After I first saw the film (I’ve seen it twice), I asked the projectionist what he thought of the film. He couldn’t understand what the message of the film was about. Ultimately, the film is about this one character, Poppy, and her uplifting and perhaps (for some) annoyingly happy personality. I found it both a very enjoyable comedy and also rich in drama.

Happy-Go-Lucky opens today.


Official website / IMDB / Mike Leigh interview / The Age article

Interview with Mike Leigh and Sally Hawkins


Sally Hawkins interview

. .

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Several Weeks in Review

It's been a while since I recorded my weekly film viewing. My last post was up to the end of March. Here's what I've seen since, though I'm not going to summarise them all.

31 March - 6 April
  • Muere de un ciclista (Death of a Cyclist, Juan Antonio Bardem, Spain/Italy, 1955)
  • Los Tarantos (Francisco Rovira Beleta, Spain, 1963)
  • La leyenda del tiempo (The Legend of Time, Isaki Lacuesta, Spain, 2006) + Q&A with the director
This weeks was all La Mirada - Jewels of Spanish Cinema. My focus was on the classics, though I snuck in The Legend of Time, an extraordinary film and talking with the director was great. All three of these films was well worth seeing.

7 - 13 April
  • El desencanto (Disenchantment, Jaime Chávarri, Spain, 1976)
  • Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, Mexico/Spain, 1961)
  • Placido (Luis García Berlanga, Spain, 1961)
  • El pisito (The Little Flat, Marco Ferreri & Isidoro M. Ferry, Spain, 1959)
  • La vida por delante (Life Ahead, Fernando Fernán Gómez, Spain, 1958)
  • Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry, USA, 2008)
I liked Viridiana, which was a surprise film, but most of the other films at La Mirada were so-so. Viridiana was selected by Paul Auster and the other classics were selected by Pedro Almodóvar. Many of the classics watched this week were fairly insipid dramas or melodramas with the qualities of Almodóvar's films that I don't like. Note to myself: be more selective with Almodóvar's picks next year.

14 - 20 April
  • La nuit américaine (Day For Night, François Truffaut, France/Italy, 1973)
  • La mariée était en noir (The Bride Wore Black, François Truffaut, France/Italy, 1968)
  • Vesyolye rebyata (Jolly Fellows, Grigori Aleksandrov, USSR, 1934)
  • Alexander Nevsky (Sergei M. Eisenstein & Dmitri Vasilyev, USSR, 1938)
  • Letyat zhuravli (The Cranes Are Flying, Mikhail Kalatozov, USSR, 1957)
  • Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, USSR, 1979)
  • Auf der anderen Seite (The Edge of Heaven, Fatih Akin, Germany/Turkey/Italy, 2007)
Day For Night is great, and joins Catherine Breillat's Sex is Comedy among others (that I can't think of) that is a great behind the scenes of film-making. ACMI had its Focus on a Century of Russian Cinema; it was great to see Stalker, which I liked a lot. The other highlight was The Edge of Heaven, a film I found flawed but with such strengths that overshadowed them that it didn't matter. The film ends at Trabizon, the ancestral home of my partner.

21 - 27 April
  • Jules et Jim (Jules and Jim, François Truffaut, France, 1961)
  • La sirène du Mississipi (Mississipi Mermaid, François Truffaut, Italy/France, 1960)
  • Transylvania (Tony Gatif, France/Romania/UK/Hungary/Italy, 2006)
  • Dyadya Vanya (Uncle Vanya, Andrei Konchalovsky, USSR, 1970)
  • Molière (Laurent Tirard, France, 2007)
  • Voskhozhdeniye (The Ascent, Larisa Shepitko, USSR, 1976)
  • Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, Sergei M. Eisenstein, USSR, 1925)
More of Truffaut at Melbourne Cinémathèque, but not as impressive this week. Transylvania is absolutely sensational and I've since ordered the DVD from Europe. With Paranoid Park, it is my favourite film of the year so far. The music, dance, story and visuals are all mind-boggling moving.

28 April - 4 May
  • Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, François Truffaut, France, 1959)
  • Les deux anglaises et le continent (Two English Girls, François Truffaut, France, 1971)
  • Nine Lives (Rodrigo Garciá, USA, 2005)
  • Dekalog: 6 (Krzysztof Kieslowski, Poland, 1988)
Truffaut was good and I think I need to see 400 Blows again. I started watching Dekalog late last year and decided it was time to finish it.

5 - 11 May
  • Kanal (Andrzej Wajda, Poland, 1957)
  • Czlowiek z marmuru (only watched 90 mins) (Man of Marble, Andrzej Wajda, Poland, 1977)
  • Iron Man (Jon Favreau, USA, 2008)
  • Demonstrator (Warwick Freeman, Australia, 1971) +Q&A
  • Dekalog: 7 (Krzysztof Kieslowski, Poland, 1988)
I was very sick this week and shouldn't have gone to Cinémathèque, but did. Kanal was gripping and I wanted to see a few minutes of Man of Marble to get a sense of what it was like. I had to get home to bed but couldn't pull myself away, staying for 90 minutes. I have to see it in full.

12 - 18 May
  • Wesele (The Wedding, Andrzej Wajda, Poland, 1973)
  • Panny z Wilka (The Maids of Wilko, Andrzej Wajda, Poland/France, 1979)
  • Shadows (John Cassavetes, USA, 1959)
  • Faces (John Cassavetes, USA, 1968)
  • The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes, USA, 1976)
  • A Constant Forge - The Life and Art of John Cassavetes (Charles Kiselyak, USA, 2000)
  • Streetsweeper (Neil Mansfield, Australia, 2007)
ACMI had its Focus on John Cassavetes and all the above films were sensational. Shadows is a remarkable debut and an extraordinary film for its day. Faces has amazing performances and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was a great vehicle for Ben Gazzara, putting his charismatic performance centre-stage. Mansfield's Streetsweeper hasn't been distributed yet - I received a DVD screener. I loved it and hope to write on it. It has many elements that resonate with me, particularly its observational nature and its ambiguity. The cinematography and sound are great, though it's hard to describe its unconventional narrative.

19 - 25 May
  • Popiól i diament (Ashes and Diamonds, Andrzej Wajda, Poland, 1958)
  • Krajobraz po bitwie (Landscape After Battle, Andrzej Wajda, Poland, 1970)
  • A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes, USA, 1974)
  • Love Streams (John Cassavetes, USA, 1984)
  • Dekalog: 8 (Krzysztof Kieslowski, Poland, 1988)
Dekalog is arguably the best cinema made for television. It is technically amazing, but more importantly it is full of depth, profound, and explores all kinds of moral dilemmas with various subtle subtexts in the background. #8 is perhaps my favourite of the ten, and for me it is clearly revelatory of Kieslowski's personal philosophy. The elderly female lecturer enunciates a belief system that I had presumed to be Kieslowski's. Both Cassavetes films are fantastic.

26 May - 1 June
  • Man bo nu lang (Mambo Girl, Yi Wen, Hong Kong, 1957)
  • Flight of the Red Balloon (La voyage du ballon rouge, Hou Hsiao-hsien , France, 2007)
  • Dekalog: 9 (Krzysztof Kieslowski, Poland, 1988)
  • Dekalog: 10 (Krzysztof Kieslowski, Poland, 1988)
Thank god for DVD and thanks also for Kieslowski, possibly my favourite film-maker. Flight of the Red Balloon totally fails. How can you have a tribute to the original by using a red balloon that is barely seen and has none of the original's personality? Bland, bland, bland and all the more so because both Nova and Como cinemas are screening from a digiBeta. Apparently Sydney got 35mm, but even that wouldn't save it for me. I usually love Binoche, but she was also bland.

2 - 8 June
  • Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, UK, 2008)
  • The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (Andrew Adamson, UK/USA, 2008)
  • Blizna (The Scar, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Poland, 1976)
  • Przypadek (Blind Chance, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Poland, 1981)
  • Bez końca (No End, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Poland, 1984)
  • Krzysztof Kieslowski: I'm So-So… (Krzysztof Wierzbicki, Poland/Denmark, 1995)
  • Krótki film o zabijaniu (A Short Story About Killing, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Poland, 1988)
Mike Leigh has crafted a magnificent film, a comedy that really works, and I intend to write more on this shortly. It opens at the end of the month and hopefully word will get out how funny, moving and intelligent this film is. It's as good as anything I've seen by Leigh (starting with Secrets and Lies up to Vera Drake). The thought of Leigh making a film about an impossibly happy woman sounds almost unbelievable. This is my third favourite cinema release of the year. And more Kieslowski - a great week. I picked up many subtle details I missed in my first viewing of Blind Chance and I think all his films deserve multiple viewings. No End and A Short Story About Killing are both extraordinary.

I've had health issues lately. I have a condition - I've forgotten it's name - and I've had to give more priority to getting sufficient sleep and exercise, something I've neglected of late. My current job is also more demanding than previous contracts I've had. I'm still doing French classes at Alliance Française and that's coming along slowly but steadily. I also have conversation classes on the weekend with a French national staying here until the end of the year.

I've taken up bike-riding as a means of forcing myself to include exercise into my (near) daily routine. It's half an hour in the morning and evening and I'm loving it. I started just before Easter, which was just after that really late heat wave in Autumn when the weather reached the mid-high 30's. I've lost about 4 kilograms of weight so far, though I'm more interested in losing flab than weight. And more important than both is getting fit and strong. I'm slowly getting there. I'm hoping to lose another 10kg over the next year, then I should be my optimum weight.

I've had something like ten close shaves with death in my life, though none for about 12 years or so. I've been involved in four car accidents where the vehicle rolled over, 3 of them at high speed. I emerged from each seemingly unscratched, yet a dozen or so years later it came out that I had a neck injury that hadn't been detected. That's also causing me some problems that have forced me to make more effort to get fit.

As the year has progressed, there's been a number of cinema releases that I wouldn't mind seeing, but haven't been big priorities. Consequently, a number of films have come and gone before I got the chance to see them. I suppose I'm becoming more selective about which films I go to. I do get invites to media screenings, but as many of these are during business hours, I haven't been able to get to as many as I'd like to.

I'm planning to take two and a half weeks off work for MIFF again this year. I expect to average 2 films a day with a focus on writing on everything I see (as I did last year).

That pretty much brings me up-to-date, though there's a zillion details that I don't care to go into. My film-going has been regular if my writing hasn't. C'est la vie !

One last thing: I have a number of film titles that are on my list to see. Any feedback on what to see and what to avoid is appreciated. They are:
  • A Secret
  • The Orphanage
  • Gone Baby Gone
  • Heya Fawda
  • Love in the Time of Cholera
  • Rats and Cats