Monday, September 29, 2008

The Week in Review - 28/9/08

With a 7-year old readaholic in the house, who loves Andy Griffiths books (The Day My Bum Went Psycho, Pencil of Doom, etc), when I heard good reviews of his theatre for kids, Just Macbeth, I knew I just had to take the family to see it. Shunning the $7.15 online booking fee, and seeing that the Playhouse Theatre accomodates up to 800 or so people, I naively thought I could turn up prior to the performance to purchase tickets. Big mistake - it was sold out. I bought tickets for a performance next Friday evening (it runs until 5 October) and went to the art gallery instead. We took out a family membership and checked out the Art Deco exhibition.

  • High School (Frederick Wiseman, USA, 1968)
  • Targets (Peter Bogdanovich, USA, 1968)
  • The Visitor (Thomas McCarthy, USA, 2007)
  • The Square (Nash Edgerton, Australia, 2008)
  • Lynch (blackANDwhite, USA/Denmark, 2007)

  • Half and Half (written by Daniel Keene, directed by Matt Scholten)

  • Art Deco 1910-1930, National Gallery of Victoria

High School
A great snapshot of an American high school, depicting teachers, students and parents interacting in various routine ways. With its verité style, we get a fly-on-the-wall look at the attitudes and fashions of the day.

This is a very impressive directorial debut by Bogdanovich, very impressive indeed. The film includes two parallel stories, an aging horror actor Byron Orlok (a thinly-disguised pseudonym of Boris Karloff, and played by the great screen legendhimself) who retires from acting, and a young seemingly all-American man who goes on a shooting spree.

The film's structure is highly staged, something that works for it very strongly (most of the time). A scene with Karloff merges with a scene with the psychopath and vice versa. Bogdanovich is clearly connecting dots here, but leaves it to the audience's imagination. There is scant use of music, other than within the film's plot, and the most suspenseful parts are devoid of any music at all, counter to common expectations. I found this very powerful.

It appears that Bogdanovich wanted to make an homage to both Karloff and Howard Hawks' The Criminal Code (in which Karloff stars, and which is Melbourne Cinémathèque's last screening of the year). In Targets, Karloff seems to play himself, bemoaning how he was typecast throughout his career and rarely got to play the serious roles he wanted. In casting Karloff, Bogdanovich gave the aging actor the opportunity to play just the type of serious role he wanted.

The film's main weakness is the climax when the two worlds collide - it's a little clumsy. Yet, the momentum and suspense has by this time been so overwhelmingly brought to a crescendo that it doesn't really matter. This is a seriously good film that captivates largely due to its working on multiple levels simultaneously, without spoon-feeding the audience.

The Visitor
Drab, uninspiring, disappointing. A message film, and I'm tired of message films, even though I agree with the message. Jenkins has little screen presence, though he's convincing as a boring academic.

The Square
Who says Australian cinema is dead? This is one kick-arse thriller, an impressive collaboration between the brothers Edgerton. Between them, they have co-written, directed, co-edited, co-produced, co-starred (as convincing nasties) and assembled a fine cast. The result? An edge-of-your-seat film that puts 99% of big budget Hollywood thrillers to shame.

Three Blind Mice gets my AFI vote for best Australian film of the year, but The Square is not far behind.

Who is this blackANDwhite? Rumour is it's Lynch himself, and I'm inclined to agree. I liked this so-called doco, which is more "a number of days in the life of..." than a documentary. It's not particularly insightful, but gives an idea of what they guy is like, as the camera follows him at work. The one pearl of wisdom that I gleaned was when Lynch vehemently disagreed that an artist should suffer for his art. Lynch's retort is that there is an ocean of creativity that one should hook into. Happiness is the secret, not misery. I loved that.

Half and Half
I felt quite inadequate watching this Keene performance, as it uses a language quite different to what I'm accustomed to. It's very theatrical but, hey, it's live performance. It's highly metaphorical, but metaphors of what? I'm perplexed.

Keene is a theatre person, famous in France where all his works have been translated and performed. My acquaintance with him stems from his involvement in the writing (in different capacities) of three of Alkinos Tsilimidos' four feature films. I've made no secret that Tsilimidos is my favourite Australian director, and his collaborations with Keene's writing on the dark side have produced great results.

Back to Half and Half, I just don't know what to say. It was experiential, and I'm sure I gleaned something intuitively. Something about brotherly bonds, bonds of love and hate. Metaphors about gardens and weeds, but it's all too obscure. Do I need more exposure to theatre? Am I too illiterate (theatre people tend to be better read than us poor cousin cinema types)? I dunno. I enjoyed the experience, but don't think I got as much from it as I could have.

Art Deco
I was person no. 3,003 to exit the exhibition and according to the security person who was tracking numbers on a counter, there was an estimated 1,000 people in the exhibition, and a large queue still waiting to get in there. What with the NGV, the Art Centre and the craft market crowds on the Yarra, no wonder St. Kilda road was a wall of people. As a regular attendee at places like ACMI and the Kino, these crowds are a bit of a novelty for me - not something I'm accustomed to.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

ACMI Focus on Johnnie To

Hong Kong director Johnnie To is the subject of an ACMI Focus season, from Thursday 6 November to Sunday 16 November. I have only seen To's Exiled, which screened last year at Melbourne Cinémathèque, and found it very entertaining.

The program hasn't been published yet, but I can confirm the following titles will be screening:
  • Sparrow (2008), his most recent film, described as a tribute to Hong Kong and refers to the city's audacious pick-pockets
  • The Enigmatic Case (1980), his debut, a wuxia (martial arts) film
  • Seven Year's Itch (1987), his second film, a romantic comedy
  • The Fun, the Luck and the Tycoon (1989)
  • The Bare Footed Kid (1993)
  • A Hero Never Dies (1998)
  • Running Out of Time (1999)
  • Fulltime Killer (2001)
  • PTU (2003)
  • Breaking News (2004)
  • Throw Down (2004), his personal favourite and tribute to Kurosawa
  • Exiled (2006)
Keep an eye on ACMI's website for further details.

MUFF 9 is Coming


MUFF is coming: October 9 - 19. You can download the program. I'd really like to catch Acolytes, Wake in Fright and The Man From Hong Kong. Any other recommendations?

[Edit] MUFF is screening at the Palace George cinema, Noise Bar and Glitch Bar. I'm happy to go to the George but have never been to the other two venues. Can anyone offer any feedback on the suitability of them for film screenings?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Week in Review - 21/9/08

The Cinema 1968: The Whole World is Watching season at Melbourne Cinémathèque this week and is running for five weeks, possibly longer than any other season, I believe. Actually, last week's La mama et la putain introduces is thematically connected, so it could be considered a six-week season. Michael Koller, co-programmer says the length is needed to do justice to films from around the world, including Czechoslovakia, the UK and USA. If... is a knockout. The other standout (and surprising so) was The Naked Bunyip. This one impressed me so much that I wrote a separate post on it today, 2000-odd words, the longest single post in a long time. Apologies if you find any typos or lack of coherence. I don't have time to edit it.
  • If… (Lindsay Anderson, UK, 1968)
  • Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, UK, 1968)
  • Wall*E (Andrew Stanton, USA, 2008)
  • Salvation (Paul Cox, Australia, 2008)
  • The Naked Bunyip (John B. Murray, Australia, 1970) + Q&A
  • Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl, USA, 1945)

If... is a fantastically subversive and wickedly funny satire from 1968. Apparently it was Malcolm McDowell's screen debut, and his performance was strong. Little wonder he was cast in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, a role that has parallels to this. His character's name is Travis and I wonder if Scorsese was referencing him with De Niro's character (Travis Bickle) in Taxi Driver. These characters also have much in common.

The sexual undertones, the exaggerated brutality of the boys' public school system, the sometimes bizarre humour all made this film one helluva ride and thoroughly enjoyable.
It would make a good companion piece to David Fincher's Fight Club.

Witchfinder General
I always liked Vincent Price when he was popular in the 1970s and his understated performance in The Witchfinder General is darkly charismatic. I like the themes the film explores - official corruption, mob mentality, demonisation of individuals - but the film feels insubstantial. It is unintentionally funny at times and the wandering towards melodrama did little for me.


After all the buzz about Wall*E, I feel let down. I don't think it's Pixar's best film by any stretch of the imagination. Why? The writing is pretty ordinary. And the visuals which everyone has been raving about - the bar is pretty high with what Pixar have created - quite honestly, it's nothing special.

Each Pixar film usually has some visual aspect that they focus on. For example, in Ratatouille it was the minute details like the body hairs. In this one, it's the beauty of rust and decay. I found the colours were too mute for too much of the time. Dusty, misty colouration brought the aesthetics down.

The film, as usual, is a Disney co-production, so you know what kind of film you're getting. You don't expect challenging story-lines, but they don't need to be as tired and unchallenging as this. There's some cute pop cultural cross-references, like the retro music and videos, computer games, HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey (and the classical music like The Blue Danube, etc). They're all moderately amusing. I found the score from the start overly kitsch.

It's still an enjoyable film and a good one to take kids too without being too bored (though I found it very flat around the 45-60 minute mark), but nothing to get too worked up about. Perhaps my greatest disappointment is that Pixar is churning out a mediocre story that does little for children's imaginations: just more of the same cliches.

There is an environmental/consumeristic theme, but I don't feel it's an issue the film-makers take too seriously or sincerely. Rather, it's just topical and they're capitalising on that. My 7-year old son loved it. This film should do well internationally as there is very little dialogue. The first sparse words occur 20 minutes into the film. Strangely, the film goes downhill as the dialogue increases.

Somehow or other, I've never managed to get a Paul Cox film in before, and I didn't like this one. I'm also told that it's quite typical for a Cox film. The dialogue seemed over-theatrical or tele-movie style right from the start and the characters seemed to lack any believability, for me at least. Basically, it's the story of a tele-evangelist and her husband who are drifting in different directions. The tele-evangelist has godly feelings with her assistant (played perfectly straight and understated by Kim Gyngell) and the husband falls in love with a Russian prostitute.

I could have walked out at any time, but did my duty for the AFI screenings and stayed. The thing I liked most about the film was recognising many of the locations, as I've lived both sides of Hobsons Bay for the last 22 years and it was fun doing the location-spotting thing.

Leave Her to Heaven
I'm not big on melodrama at all, yet somehow I enjoyed this technicolor feast for the eyes. Perhaps it was the fusion with noir (another genre I've not had much exposure to) that added to the appeal, I'm not sure. The film made no pretensions of being anything other than pulp fiction and it worked a treat. The film screened under the ACMI banner of First Look; I assume it's a brand new restored print, and it looks fantastic.

It was great to see a young Vincent Price, the third film I've seen him in this week (the others being Witchfinder General and the missus was watching Edward Scissorhands last night). He always has a strong and charismatic screen presence; his long courtroom tirades were impressive in spite of their complete ridiculousness (it just couldn't happen in real life, but that's not the point, as this is the fantasy of melodrama). All-in-all, good fun.

The Naked Bunyip + Q&A

The Naked Bunyip (John B. Murray, Australia, 1970)
In 1970, when The Naked Bunyip was released, I was too young to see it. However, the film cast a long enough shadow throughout the 70s for me to be vaguely cognisant of it having some kind of cultural significance, a significance that I only realised yesterday at the film’s screening at ACMI.

ACMI’s weekly Australian Perspectives, screenings of little Australian gems from the past, are on most Saturdays and unfortunately often don’t get the attendances they deserve. This tends to confirm the point that director John B. Murray was making when he set about to film The Naked Bunyip nearly 40 years ago. The event was co-hosted by the Australian Film Critics Association (AFCA, of which I am a member) and a Q&A session was held after the screening with Peter Kraus (AFCA chair), Jake Wilson (a film critic from The Age, and one of my favourite Australian media film critics) and John B. Murray himself.

What a surprise the film was. I like to know as little as required before seeing a film, and I didn’t know that it was largely a documentary. But what a documentary! I wonder if John B. Murray had visions of it encapsulating the zeitgeist for posterity in the way it has. I did speak with him shortly after the screening, but I didn’t get the opportunity to ask this specifically.

My perceptions of The Naked Bunyip before seeing it were that it was a low budget pioneering film that was big on tits and genitalia (requiring John Russell-Clarke’s famous images as a censorship device to cover up the bits the masters of morality deemed too offensive) and low on narrative. The film received a nod in Mark Hartley’s recent Not Quite Hollywood (which is still screening at the Nova), which raises awareness of the historical significance of The Naked Bunyip.

Murray’s work is not another so-called Ozploitation film, but rather a very considered, intelligent attempt to both analyse and stir the Australian psyche, to get Australians to look at themselves in the mirror and define and find their own identity. Because of the distribution and exhibition system in this country since the 1920s, Australia had become almost solely a consumer of foreign (ie, US and UK) cinema and The Naked Bunyip was Murray’s attempt to address this, to get Australians to look towards their own film-makers and support a local industry. Oh my god, doesn’t this still sound so familiar today?! Nearly forty years later, this subject is very much in the psyche of those who care about Australian cinema.

Murray uses a cinema verité style of interview, with interviewees directly addressing the camera. Reading Murray’s significant essay The Genesis of the Naked Bunyip on Senses of Cinema, it is clear that he was aiming for the same effect that Errol Morris later achieved with his invention of the Interrotron.

Other than a couple of skits, one the setup in a social research organisation, the other a fake interview between Graeme Blundell and Dame Edna Everidge (Barrry Humphries, complete with gladioli), the bulk of the film consists of interviews with various people, investigating attitudes to sex and sexuality.

The sheer number of people who appeared in the film is awesome; many are now household names: Barry Humphries, Beatrice Faust, Barry Jones, Jackie Weaver, Harry M. Miller, Graeme Blundell of course, Fred Schepisi (who was directing commercials and hadn’t yet made a feature film), Russell Morris (performing “The Real Thing”, perhaps as window dressing, but alluring nonetheless), Dr. Bertam Wainer, Senator John Button and Keith Dunstan, among others.

Blundell is used for comic release, a clever device to make the subject matter more palatable. He remains largely mute, though sometimes his thoughts are narrated. His parts are interspersed throughout the film. His character was further developed in Alvin Purple (which I was also too young to see). Murray’s use of comedy in his film was very innovative, preceding by many years a style of documentary film-making that has become very popular perhaps since Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine. Today we see many documentaries getting released that combine the idea of uncovering facts with other narrative and cinematic devices, such as Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me and Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir (currently on release).

The film initially explores sexuality in popular culture and after the intermission (the film has one, but screened without break at ACMI) it heads into darker territory with abortion, homosexuality (then illegal) and prostitution. Some of these subjects were very much taboo at the time, much more so than now, and Murray had difficulty in finding homosexuals who would speak on camera. He mentioned during the Q&A that during post-production he eventually found a couple who would speak on camera about their homosexuality and it was a rush to get this material included in the film.

The question and answer sessions are what really adds value to these Australian Perspectives screenings. Each Q&A is unique; this one because John B. Murray is such a lucid and intelligent speaker that his answers were detailed to the extent that there was time for only three questions. Each of the panel members asked one and I asked the only audience question. This took about 45 minutes and we then had to vacate the cinema for the following screening.

Peter Krausz asked how the film came about. I can’t even begin to recount a fraction of the detailed answer, but basically Murray revealed:
  • It was driven by Murray and executive producer Phillip Adams, who was then a partner in a public relations firm, where perhaps the idea of the social research organisation in the film came from.
  • It cost $40,000 to make, had a crew of three and was filmed in three states over ten weeks. There was seven weeks of pre-production and a long post-production.
  • It was very difficult to meet homosexuals, and harder to get any to speak on camera.
  • The censors were very accommodating but demanded 36 cuts totalling five minutes. To the chagrin of the censors, the cuts were replaced with the bunyip cartoons or beeping, which gave some indication of what was being censored.
  • Prowse was the chief censor and Don Chipp was the minister responsible.
  • If anything, the censors had been too lenient, and allowed material that would not be passed today.
  • No-one had much faith in the film and so Murray marketed and distributed it himself. The local exhibitors showed no interest whatsoever, due to the US and UK strangehold on the industry. The only venue Murray could find was the Palais in St. Kilda, with 3500 seats. By closing the upper circle, this was reduced to 2300 seats. Murray basically hired that facility, foregoing any rights to income from sales of food and drinks (the major source of income for theatres) for $1750 per week. He arranged for flyers, brochures and, with Natalie Miller (currently part-owner of the Nova) doing publicity, arranged party bookings. Confounding all the sceptics, some 2,000 people arrived on opening night, forming a queue that went all the way down the street round the corner and down to the Esplanade. Murray described it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and he counted only 12 walkouts during the film.
  • The film was initially booked for 2 weeks, but it was extended to 7 weeks. But he still couldn’t get any local cinemas to screen it, but found a live theatre in the city that he fitted out and booked for 6 weeks, where it sold out 2-3 times each week.
  • Murray then went on tour with the film to each of the capital cities, screening it wherever he went. He calculates he saw the film 600 times before taking the film to regional areas. He ended up touring with the film for two and a half years. He says he succeeded in breaking down prejudices against Australian films. Indeed, Tim Burstall was so encouraged by Murray’s success (they had worked together on the earlier 2000 Weeks, a complete flop which had Burstall fall into depression) that he went on to great success a couple of years later with Stork, Alvin Purple and other landmark Australian films. After the success of The Naked Bunyip, Stork screened for only two weeks at the Palais before Village agreed to distribute it.
  • The idea of the bunyip images came about when Murray actually researched the relevant censorship act to determine what was and wasn’t allowed.
Jake Wilson asked how much of the film was intended to connect with audiences and how much of it was intended to challenge them. Murray answered by saying that all directors want to connect with their audiences but his specific intent was to challenge them. He wanted to hold a mirror to Australian audiences, to open up a taboo subject. There was very little reading material on the subject (does anyone remember The Little Red School Book?), the subject confronted people and you couldn’t speak of homosexuality. According to Murray, the film needed to confront people. We hadn’t thought things through and what we spoke was simply rote.

Jake Wilson also asked where the idea of using Graeme Blundell came from. Murray said he cast him but didn’t want him to speak, as this would distract from the flow of the film. Murray wanted him to be a Buster Keaton-like character. He has the right physical attributes, isn’t quite with it, but always tries his best. Murray also mentioned that Humphries’ appearance was his first on film, and that his part was scripted by Phillip Adams.

When I asked a question from the audience, I mentioned that Murray’s example of distribution was quite inspirational and that this is still topical and relevant today. I asked what comments he could make about how young film-makers could get their films distributed and what issues he sees in the current system (alluding to funding practices). Murray mentioned that this is something he has been discussing in different roles for years. I don’t know if he adequately answered my question or if, indeed, this was possible in the time constraints. In passing, though, he mentioned that film-makers these days are much more specialised and don’t have the range of skills that earlier film-makers needed to possess: understanding film as art, film as a product to be marketed and distributed.

Murray says it’s a lot harder now, since John Howard opened up Australia to foreign commercials. Production equipment is very expensive but with the input of foreign commercials, the local industry has been seriously weakened, and the money isn’t there.

Peter Krausz asked about Murray’s opinion of Not Quite Hollywood’s inclusion of The Naked Bunyip. Murray replied that he was initially sceptical as he didn’t see his film as fitting into the category of Ozploitation. Hartley convinced him that the film would be treated with respect, and Murray says Hartley honoured his commitments. When asked why he wasn't interviewed for the film, Murray replied that it's probably due to his initial scepticism.

The Naked Bunyip was both an extremely bold (in subject) and extremely ambitious (in breadth) project, and one we can be thankful that Murray was passionate enough about to embark upon. He has left ours and future generations a legacy, a document of a point in time that might otherwise be forgotten. It is entertaining, insightful, revealing and infused with a sense of importance of its time. If you get the opportunity to see it on the big screen, take it. Otherwise, it is available on DVD from Umbrella Entertainment and includes the deleted visual and audio scenes and a 20 minute featurette.

Links: John B. Murray’s website / Genesis of The Naked Bunyip / Refused Classification

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Week in Review - 14/9/08

It's been a remarkable week of films, with the highlights being three films by Satyajit Ray and Jean Eustace's La maman et la putain.
  • Beyond Our Ken (Luke Walker & Melissa Maclean, Australia, 2007)
  • La maman et la putain (The Mother and the Whore, Jean Eustace, France, 1973)
  • Pather Panchali (Song of the Road, Satyajit Ray, India, 1955)
  • Ghare-Baire (The Home and the World, Satyajit Ray, India, 1984)
  • Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, Satyajit Ray, India, 1959)
  • Piano, solo (Riccardo Milani, Italy, 2007)
La maman et la putain
I simply don't have the time to write sufficiently about this extraordinary film. I don't believe I've ever sat for three and a half hours in a cinema without a break, but I did without any problems during this screening at Melbourne Cinémathèque. I'd been anticipating it since Isaki Lacuesta, Spanish director of Le leyenda del tiempo (The Legend of Time, 2006) brought it to my attention after the screening of his impressive film at ACMI earlier in the year. I believe he described it as his favourite film, and I can see why. I may write on this in more detail after watching it again. I have been participating in an online discussion at the At The Movies discussion board. Or check out Jonathan Rosenbaum's piece.

Pather Panchali
Now, I don't want to go into a rant about how important films like this, screening as part of a partial-retrospective of India's most celebrated film-maker, should be shown in their original ratio (4:3, rather than the 16:9). Nor do I want to whine about the air-conditioning failing, leaving us to swelter in 29 degrees Celsius (but thanks to the staff who gave us two tickets for the price of one). So I'll just proceed with stating that this is probably the best Indian film I have ever seen. Not that I've seen many, but this is seriously impressive cinema.

The child's perspective, the beautiful cinematography, the amazing characters, the austerity and restraint of dialogue, the Ravi Shankar score, the heart-breaking story all combine to produce a film that just has to be experienced. This was Ray's first film and the beginning of his Apu trilogy. Unfortunately, the middle of the trilogy is not screening as part of the retrospective.

I've been to rural Bengal on six occasions, the last being 1990. I was struck with how authentic this film is, and how recognisable it's look is. At least as at 1990, the essence of what is depicted in Pather Panchali, could still be seen in Bengal, a land that has largely remained unchanged. Check out the 105 second clip at this site.

Apur Sansar
The final installment in the Apu trilogy, and another remarkable piece of output by Ray, though not quite at the same level of accomplishment as Pather Panchali, in my opinion. Ray shows great compassion for his characters, depicting the struggles of one character across three films - childhood in Pather Panchali, adolescence in Aparajito and adulthood in Apur Sansar. But it's not just the struggles of Apu, but also those around him. In doing so, Ray is tapping into the greater themes of human struggle. I hope to see these again without the projection issues that have dogged the sessions I attended.

Another Ray film, based on a novel, and it shows. I enjoyed it in the context of a Ray retrospective and as a serious film from India (I hate Bollywood cinema), but it's not on the same level as the Apu films. Or maybe it's just that I'm not particularly taken by melodrama.

Beyond Our Ken

Beyond Our Ken (Luke Walker and Melissa Maclean, Australia, 2007)
Cult - an evocative word, one that perhaps is more closely associated with popular culture, like “that film has a cult following". In the 70s, Western societies were inundated with cults and various groups. There was then a sense of a new wave of social change and people - youth in particular - were keen to reject the ways of their parents and adopt a new paradigm, paradigms offered by groups like Rajneesh, Transcendental Meditation (TM), Hare Krishna, Children of God, Scientologists and others. While many of these groups have dispersed or disappeared, some have adapted and live on.

Beyond Our Ken is an examination of one of these groups, Kenja. Incorporated in 1982 and founded by Ken Dyers and Jan Hamilton, whose first names are joined in the group's name, Kenja projects itself as a self-empowerment training organisation but has been widely criticised as a secretive cult, with allegations of sexual assault. Directed by Luke Walker and Melissa Maclean, access was given within the organisation up to the highest level.

I like the way the documentary is structured. Unlike the recent spate of entertaining and often unashamedly one-sided documentaries, in a more traditional manner, this film examines its subject by interviewing current and former members, parents of members, psychologists and others with an interest in such groups. Some of the most insightful glimpses into the group comes from the crew's access to the leaders themselves. Dyers and Hamilton appear to bask in the attention the documentary affords them.

The film's by-line, “You wouldn't know a cult, even if you were in one”, is quite poignant. As is pointed out, most cults attract members of above average intelligence, often with professional occupations. Those who are somehow restless and dis-satisfied, who have money to pay for “energy conversions” and other sessions, these people are primed as they are shopping for something.

What I consider important about the film is that - while it deals with a specific group - it reveals tactics and qualities that are common to most. By revealling how this group operates, one can see a common thread through many. Such groups are still alive and well in the form of Hare Krishna, Exclusive Brethren and Scientology. One could argue that even the Roman Catholic Church is a type of cult (with it's ascribing of divine powers to the Pope, and the followers' devotion to him). I tend to agree, though that's an aside that I don't wish to pursue here.

I'll state here that there's no doubt in my mind that Kenja is a cult. This is because of the group's focus on its leaders, who appear to enjoy a status akin to a high priest and priestess, a divine couple whose every needs are supplied by compliant members. Most revealling is the groups use of the leaders' names in the group's name. How self-promoting and self-absorbed is that? A genuinely spiritual organisation would name itself on that which it is promoting. But then, Kenja appears to be all about Ken and Jan.

Having taken an interest in alternative religions and teachings in the 1970s and 1980s, I recognised many of the teachings and techniques of Kenja. They appear to be distilled from a variety of sources, with teachings similar to Hare Krishna and New Age spirituality (including Louise Hay's “inner child” concepts), the use of pseudo-psychology with the more rigorous and aggressive business acumen of groups like TM and the Scientologists.

Like any self-respecting cult, Kenja has devised a fairly routine set of mantras or standard responses to claims it is a cult. “Isn't football a cult?” asks Ken indignantly? All these groups have such responses, which I find tired and self-serving. You can never get a straight answer, and the answers are always embellished, denied or avoided. The straightest answers come from those who were once on the inside and now, for various reasons, find themselves outside the group. The group's deflection of these people as a kind of jilted lover doesn't wash.

The group's lecturers/preachers often use catch-words and phrases that are clearly designed to sound meaningful and attractive, though it's never quite clear what they actually mean. “Energy conversions”, “energy”, “free personal consultations”, “attached entities”, “wonderful technology” are some of the words that caught my attention, reminding me of Scientology. And like that group (and virtually every other cult), the adherents have justified why one should break free from existing friends and family, unless they support the group.

As one former member points out, group members don't just hang out with each other like normal people. There is a kind of camaraderie, but if you leave Kenja, all your friendships with the group are over. There is a constant implant of phobias - if you leave, something terrible will happen (such as “I will be lost”, “I'll go mad”, “I'll have no friends”). These are all common traits of cults.

For those who are not familiar with the history of Kenja, I won't spoil it with the ending. Needless to say, it's dramatic and unexpected. I found Beyond Our Ken compelling and highly recommend seeing it on the big screen while you can. It is screening exclusively at Cinema Nova until Wednesday 24 September, and is being released by Hopscotch Entertainment on DVD on 18 September.

Link: Kenja in the news recently (Warning: this article contains spoilers)
Other reviews: Stale Popcorn / Toronto Screen Shots

News and Bits

This post is about nothing in particular, but there's a number of news items I thought were worth sharing.

Lynden Barber from Eyes Wired Open has posted about Steve Jacobs' (director) and Anna Maria Monticelli's (writer) latest film Disgrace winning the prestigious FIPRESCI Prize at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by celebrated author J.M. Coetzee. I was a big fan of the same team's previous film, La Spagnola, which had the great misfortune of opening on September 11, 2001. It received very little attention, though it has appeared on SBS television a couple of times since.

I, for one, look forward to Disgrace, which stars John Malkovich. Glenn at Stale Popcorn has assembled a few reviews of the film. Icon Films are distributing and have indicated the film will be released in early 2009.

Even more disgraceful...
... is news that the Australian Film Critics Association is hosting a screening of The Naked Bunyip at ACMI this Saturday at 4pm, followed by a Q&A with a panel discussion with AFCA members and the director, John B Murray. From AFCA:
In his first feature film, Graeme Blundell stars as an innocent young market researcher assigned to report on sex. In this raucous documentary he gets up close and personal - but too personal in fact for the censors of the time who demanded cuts to the film. Rather than remove the offending footage, however, Murray instead inserted bunyip caricatures and bleeps over the objectionable segments, infuriating the censors but making a bold statement about censorship. With a guest appearance by Barry Humphries (amongst many other prominent Australians) The Naked Bunyip helped to revive the Australian film industry.
I'll definitely be going to see this, not just because I happen to be an AFCA member, but because I find these Australian Perspectives screenings at ACMI a great opportunity to see these little gems on the big screen, even more so when there's a Q&A session with the director. I still remember being too young to see this film when it came out, and there being much controversy at the time. It was featured in Mark Hartley's Not Quite Hollywood. You can find film-maker notes on ACMI's website.

Palace goes digital
Palace Cinemas have moved into the 21st century with the announcement that two of their cinemas have installed digital projection:
Palace Cinemas is delighted to announce the recent installation of state-of-the-art 3D projection technology at two of its leading locations, Palace Balwyn and Palace Dendy Brighton Cinemas.

Committed to delivering the best possible cinema experience to audiences, Palace Cinemas have made the transition from 35mm prints to digital projection at the select locations, using the superior DOLBY 3D digital system.

This innovative new projection system delivers an immersive and unbeatable sensory experience, with outstanding picture quality, colour balance, clarity and the highest level of overall viewing comfort.

Also, with the increasing availability of digital 3D titles, starting with Journey to the Centre Of The Earth on September 25, and followed by the animated Fly Me to the Moon and James Cameron’s eagerly anticipated Avatar in 2009, Palace’s installation of the DOLBY 3D digital projectors will take movie-watching to the next level, allowing audiences to view breathtaking scenery, true-to-life action, and spectacular special effects like never before.

Executive Director of Palace Cinemas, Benjamin Zeccola, says, “3D and DIGITAL projection technology are exciting developments in the history of cinema and Palace is excited to be at the forefront of digital technology and state-of-the-art projection. We invest in superior technology to deliver the best; that's what Palace patrons have come to expect.”
I find this an exciting development and look forward to seeing the results on-screen.

Beyond Our Ken at the Nova
Beyond Our Ken is a local documentary about the Kenja cult that is definitely worth seeing. It is screening in Melbourne exclusively at the Nova. It is currently scheduled to screen until Wednesday of next week, so see it on the big screen while you can. Check out my review.

Ana Kokkinos' Blessed
No commentary from me, just the media release, which says it all:
From the director of HEAD ON and the writer of LANTANA comes BLESSED, a hauntingly evocative new feature film, to be shot on location in Melbourne Australia from October 6 until November 21.

BLESSED will mark the third collaboration between director Ana Kokkinos and writer Andrew Bovell, who previously teamed on HEAD ON and THE BOOK OF REVELATION, and will also reunite Kokkinos with producer Al Clark (PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT, CHOPPER), who produced THE BOOK OF REVELATION, and with internationally esteemed editor Jill Bilcock (MOULIN ROUGE, ELIZABETH), who cut HEAD ON. Additional key crew include award-winning cinematographer Geoff Burton, production designer Simon McCutcheon, costume designer Louise McCarthy and line producer Barbara Gibbs. Executive producers are Marian Macgowan, Ana Kokkinos, Phil Hunt and Compton Ross.

Based on the critically lauded play WHO’S AFRAID OF THE WORKING CLASS?, which writers Andrew Bovell, Melissa Reeves, Patricia Cornelius and Christos Tsiolkas have adapted for the big screen, BLESSED interweaves four profoundly moving stories which follow the poignant and compelling misadventures of six children as they wander the city streets through a day and a night. It’s a film about the depth of love between mothers and their young, and the life force that ultimately connects us all.

Kokkinos and Clark have assembled a remarkable array of acting talent to bring this contemporary urban odyssey to the screen, including Frances O’Connor (ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: AI, MANSFIELD PARK), Miranda Otto (LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING & THE TWO TOWERS), Deborra-lee Furness (BEAUTIFUL, JINDABYNE) and Victoria Haralabidou (BRIDES aka NYFES), who head a powerful ensemble cast.

Remarkable newcomers Anastasia Babouassouras, Sophie Lowe, Eamon Farren, Eva Lazzaro, Reef Ireland and Harrison Gilbertson star as the children. William McInnes, Wayne Blair, Monica Maughan and Tasma Walton complete the key cast. Casting director is Jane Norris (Mullinars).
Twelve Canoes
Yet another media release:

We are proud of our community. We are proud of our history and our present.

We are proud of our children, and our artists, and our songmen,

we are proud of our whole place.

Because we are proud of all these things, we are sharing them with you.

We live in Arnhem Land, in Northern Territory of Australia.

For long time our people been wanting to show our culture to the world.

We made that film, Ten Canoes. That was really beginning of it.

So now here is our culture, our place, our is 12 Canoes.

Different stories, 12 of them...Creation, and First White Men, all different parts of our history...The Swamp, and The Seasons, and Plants and Animals, all about where we live...Kinship and Language and Nowadays, how we live today.

And more than that. Everything put together is one story.

It is us, like a painting of our story.

Twelve Canoes is a website which paints a compelling portrait of the art, culture, history and place of the Yolngu people whose homeland is the town of Ramingining and the Arafura Swamp of north-central Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory.

The high-end site is a work of art in itself; honouring the people of the Arafura swamp, and built around twelve filmed “visual poems” describing and illustrating many aspects of Yolngu history, life and culture from Creation, Our Ancestors, The Macassans, First White Men, Thomson Time, The Swamp, Plants and Animals, and Seasons, to Kinship, Ceremony, Language, and a slice of contemporary life in Nowadays.

Other features of the site include galleries which showcase Ramingining art and artists, music and songmen, language and common terms, and photographs that capture the essence of life in the region.

The website has been created and developed by filmmaker Rolf de Heer and Molly Reynolds in conjunction with a consultative committee from the Ramingining Community including Peter Minygululu, Richard Birrinbirrin (associate producer on Ten Canoes), Philip Gudthaykudthay, Peter Djigirr (co-director of Ten Canoes) and Bobby Bunungurr, all community elders and artists in their own right.

“Back in 2003, while collaborating with the Indigenous Yolngu people of Ramingining to devise a story line for the film "Ten Canoes", a lot of material, of greatly varied subject matter, was brought in for discussion, with the individual Yolngu contributors each very keen to have their ideas incorporated, and that the film in some way should reflect the entirety of their lives, culture and history,” said filmmaker Rolf de Heer. ”There was soon general recognition that no film could achieve all that, and the idea of a website was born."

“Twelve Canoes has been developed with the aim of showcasing Yolngu culture, in particular the people of the Arufura Swamp, to the world. They are proud of their culture and homelands, and they are proud to invite the world to share this knowledge,” said project director Molly Reynolds.

The Twelve Canoes website was designed and built by Wanted Digital. Wanted Digital is a creative digital agency who specialises in high quality planning, design and execution of digital communications. Their ambition with the Twelve Canoes site was to create an immersive digital experience in which the design and navigation enhances, but never overpowers, the superb content.

Mark Eland, Wanted Digital Creative Director says “we saw this as a real opportunity to leverage the online environment's strengths by providing a experience that challenges DVD and cinema status quo by offering a more immersive state of engagement.” The site was designed to take advantage of engaging with high end video content through broadband access now and in the future. is being hosted by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia through their website. The National Film and Sound Archive is Australia's national cultural institution committed to safeguarding and making as accessible the national collection of audiovisual cultural heritage to the widest possible audience.

Paolo Cherchi Usai, NFSA’s Executive Director said, “The NFSA is pleased to be the access and hosting partner in 12 Canoes as part of our commitment to support creative propositions using new technologies and to work in collaboration with Indigenous communities to support their cultural self-determination.”


Twelve subjects, each of which deals with a particular key aspect of Yolngu culture, place, or history, were developed, incorporating works of art, video material, stills, music and sound.

These twelve stories, poetic in nature with strong, sometimes ethereal imagery, are accompanied by words from different Ramingining story-tellers.

Creation tells of when the people of the area came into being. As there are many creation stories, this is the story of Dog Dreaming and his travels from the Swamp to the sea.

Our Ancestors describes the way the Yolngu used to live, in the old times, before the arrival of any visitors from the outside world, and how this society used to operate.

The Macassans, from the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia, were the first who came from another place. Long before the coming of the white man, the Macassans were trading partners of the Yolngu, who were introduced to cloth, metal, tobacco and sea-faring skills.

First White Men tells of the various wars, ultimately won at great cost to them, fought by the Yolngu to protect their lands and people from the encroachment by white man, including the Americans who tried ranching the land.

Thomson Time speaks of Dr Donald Thomson, the anthropologist who came to solve the turmoil in Arnhem Land in the 1930's. Thomson learnt language, lived with, studied and befriended the people and was a great advocate for them to government.

The Swamp describes the World Heritage listed Arafura wetlands just south of Ramingining. The Swamp and its people have a historical, cultural, economic and spiritual relationship which is now threatened by a number of factors.

Plants and Animals is about the diversity of plant and animal life of the Arafura wetlands and surrounding areas, and their continuing but fragile existence in a changing world.

Seasons is about how the blooming of a flower can tell you the sharks are being born in the sea; it is about the interaction of the changing life cycles that punctuate the weather patterns of the Yolngu year.

Kinship highlights the complexity and historical importance of family structure and ancestral relationships. The expression of kinship today has evolved, but its importance and complexity remain.

Ceremony is about the rites and rituals that describe aspects of the Yolngu inner life, the ceremonies that bind the community together and keep the people and their traditions strong.

Language tells the story of how the different languages were given to the different clans of people of the region and describes the relationship of the clan groups and the people as a whole to their languages.

Nowadays captures a slice of the contemporary way of life for the Yolngu in the township of Ramingining.

A two-disc DVD version of the 12 stories and selected video extras will be released through Ronin Films.
A study guide for schools is also available.

Twelve Canoes was produced with the assistance of the Christensen Fund, Screen Australia, the South Australian Film Corporation and the National Film & Sound Archive. The site has been developed by Wanted Digital.

The twelve stories screen together in a cinematic version which takes the viewer on a powerful and compelling journey over 66 minutes. This cinematic version world premiered at the NFSA’s ARC cinema in Canberra on 1 July.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Italian Film Festival Preview

The Italian Film Festival opens Wednesday 17 September. I’m divided about Italian cinema. On the one hand it has greats like Marco Bellochio, whose Buongiorno, notte (Good Morning, Night, 2003) displays all the austere aesthetics of the best of European cinema, and on the other it seems to be eternally infatuated with family melodramas that use every cliché in the book, much like daytime soap opera. The more serious cinephile has to wade carefully to find ‘the good stuff’. But it can be found.

I'm limiting my research of films to see by excluding anything that looks too conventional, namely comedies and family dramas. I'm not saying that some of these may not be good. It's just that I haven't had a good track record with these genres from Italy. Excluding these and the three films I've seen already (reviews below), this leaves me with the retrospectives (12 films) and four contemporary titles, namely:
The retrospective titles are:
  • Tutta colpa del paradise (All the Fault of Paradise, Francesco Nuti, 1985)
  • Amarcord (Federico Fellini, 1974)*
  • Anonimo Veneziano (The Anonymous Venetian, Enrico Maria Salerno, 1970)
  • Banditi a Orgosolo (Bandits of Orgosolo, Vittorio De Seta, 1961)
  • Lo chiamavano Trinità (They Call Me Trinity, E.B. Clucher, 1970)**
  • C’eravamo tanto amati (We All Loved Each Other So Much, Ettore Scola, 1975)
  • Il ladro di bambini (The Stolen Children, Gianni Amelio, 1992)*
  • Matrimonio all’Italiana (Marriage Italian-Style, Vittorio De Sica, 1964)*
  • La viaccia (The Lovers, Mauro Bolognini, 1961)*
  • Il magnifico cornuto (The Magnificent Cuckold, Antonio Pietrangeli, 1965)
  • Serafino (Pietro Germi, 1969)
  • Tre fratelli (Three Brothers, Francesco Rosi, 1981)*

* I know nothing about any of the retrospective selections, though those marked with an asterisk have been recommended to me by others who have.
** On face value, more fun than anything.

Visitors, if you have any recommendations, feel free to leave them in the comments.

Il resto della notte (The Rest of the Night, Francesco Munzi, 2008)
“Straight from the Director’s Fortnight of the 2008 Cannes Film Festival comes this biting & poignant drama from Francesco Munzi, who displays a level of deft sophistication and power only hinted at with his debut prize-winner Saimir.” So read the promotional notes to this intriguing film that is clearly a cut above most Italian dramas.

In one sense, it is three stories in one. The first is the story of an affluent upper-middle class family. The second is a story of some down-and-out struggling Romanian migrants, one of whom is fired as the maid of the family when she is suspected of stealing. The third is the collision of these two worlds. Each part has a different aesthetic.

The Rest of the Night is an ambitious film and Munzi is attempting to weave a web that will attract a wide audience. The affluent story is pure contemporary Italian cinema (at least, what we see of it here). There’s the selfish and demanding husband, there’s the beautiful but fading wife and the cute and spoilt teenage daughter. Perhaps Munzi’s intention is subversive, because this aspect of the film acts like a hook for a conventional audience.

I say “hook”, because the migrant story is more in the realm of social realism á la 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days. Indeed, Laura Vasiliu (Marja, the maid) played the pregnant student seeking an abortion in that film. Dismissed at short notice, Marja in her desperation returns to the low-life. This part of the film is effective, though perhaps there is a lack of subtlety in differentiating the high- and low-lives. Nonetheless, the aesthetics of the bleakness is a welcome change to the bland and mostly middle-class stories that Italy exports.

These two worlds collide in the film’s third act, and the film’s tone changes to one of a crime drama. For my taste, I don’t think Munzi has been wholly successful in weaving these three stories together. I’d have preferred that he stick to one aesthetic or another. But then, perhaps this is not intended for an arthouse audience. I think it works best as a film for mainstream audiences who like quality drama, with a few surprises. As I often say, I prefer a film to take risks and not be completely successful, than one that aims low and succeeds. Munzi has taken risks and this film is worth a look.

La ragazza del lago (The Girl by the Lake, Andrea Molaioli, 2007)
Am I detecting a pattern? Media previews of films festivals seem to screen the gutsier film first and the populist one following. Such was my experience with the two films I saw (I’m writing about them in the order I saw them).

The Girl by the Lake has impressive credentials: two Venice Film Festival awards (best actor and best director) and no less than ten David di Donatello awards (best film, director, first-time director, screenplay, producer, actor, cinematography, editing, sound and special effects). Well, it certainly sounds impressive and I believe that this should be a popular film with festival audiences. I was completely underwhelmed.

Yes, it does look beautiful, perhaps self-consciously so. The film certainly kicks off with a compelling start. Genuine tension is built quickly, but not maintained. Unfortunately, the film sticks to tried and tested stereotypes that admittedly look much better than television, but ultimately does little to differentiate itself from classic BBC whodunits. If you’re looking for a good night out with friends and a bit of light entertainment, you can’t go wrong with this one.

Piano, solo (Riccardo Milani, 2007)
Piano Solo is based on a true story of a gifted jazz pianist, Luca Flores, following his rise and descent into darkness. It might sound bleak but is a polished story - the cinematography is beautiful. It's designed for a mainstream audience who should enjoy the conventional drama. While it depicts a person's mental decay, everything is sanitised and simplified to make it digestible. In fact, with the film's use of melodrama, I'd even go so far as to say this is an appealing 'chick-flick'. It's not to my taste personally, but this is a film that should do well with Palace's target audience.

The Italian Film Festival screens from 17 September to 5 October at Palace Como, Westgarth, Balwyn and the Kino. Check the official website for other details and screening dates for other cities (Sydney, Brisbane, Canberra, Adelaide and Perth).