Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Week in Review - 7/9/08

  • Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang, USA, 1945)
  • Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler - Ein Bild der Zeit - pt.2 (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, Fritz Lang, Germany, 1922)
  • Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, Israel/Germany/France, 2008)
  • Za'am V'Tehilah (Rage and Glory, Avi Nesher, Israel, 1985)
  • Kung Fu Killers (Brian Trenchard-Smith, Australia, 1974)
  • Bitter & Twisted (Christopher Weekes, Australia, 2008)
  • Three Blind Mice (Matthew Newton, Australia, 2008)
  • All My Friends are Leaving Brisbane (Louise Alston, Australia, 2007)
  • The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark (Oscar Redding, Australia, 2007)
The first week of Spring and it really feels like we've turned the corner on winter. Sure, we've still got cold weather coming, but there's a very noticeable change to the seasons. MIFF 2008 is now trailing off into the distance, though I had a post-festival meeting at MIFF HQ on Thursday. Every other MIFF Screen Legend member was there (all six of us) and MIFF staff, Carly Griffen and David Collins. It was a good opportunity to give some feedback and contribute some ideas.

We learnt that next year's festival is likely to be 9 July - 16 August 2009. We also heard that MIFF membership quadrupled this year (from 300 to 1200), thanks to members' priority queuing. This is going to cause problems for future free MIFF screenings during the year; which may not be able to accommodate the numbers. Either there'll be multiple simultaneous screenings, or limits based on RSVPs first-in, best-dressed. Apparently, the next screening is The Grocer's Son on Sunday 21 September. I'm not sure of the location, but given that Jump Street Films have indicated that it's being released at the Rivoli, Nova and Classic cinemas, my guess is it'll be at the largest cinema MIFF can secure.

It should be pouring rain this time of year, instead we have clear skies and it's raining film. I've seen two films at Melbourne Cinémathèque, two Israeli films (though only one at the Israeli Film Festival) and five Australian films (four as part of the free AFI member screenings). This is intense.

Scarlet Street
I probably saw much film noir and Edward G. Robinson as a child in the 60s and 70s, with all those old classics screening on Channel 9 on a Sunday afternoon. But I've had little exposure as an adult. This Lang film screened at Melbourne Cinémathèque and I found it thoroughly enjoyable. Robinson played the vulnerable and aging fall-guy with heartfelt conviction. The film looks fantastic and is a lot of fun.

Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler
Dr. Mabuse works so well precisely because it is a silent film. The visuals are simply fantastic and it looks as if the participants (especially Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who played Dr. Mabuse) had a fun time making it. The range of disguises Mabuse assumes allows for all sorts of almost comic situations, that are grounded or counter-weighted by the constant menace of Mabuse's character. Melbourne Cinémathèque really provides a great opportunity to see these amazing and rare prints on the big screen.

Waltz with Bashir
I'd planned to see Just Like Your Dad at the Como as part of the Israeli Film Festival, but was running late so decided to see an advance screening of Waltz with Bashir at the Nova instead. As it turned out, the woman in the queue ahead of me had a free double pass to the same film and offered it to me. I was happy to accept, and I've done the same for others in the past. And by chance, I had replaced one Israeli film with another. What a great film it is!

Waltz with Bashir would make an excellent companion piece to Persepolis, another personal recollection from the 80s. Both are animations, both screened at MIFF and both are now screening in Melbourne (well, Waltz with Bashir opens Thursday). Both have other things in common, while remaining distinctly different films. I'd like to do a more detailed analysis of these as companion films (and they are equally compelling and worth seeing), but I can't spare the time for this post (which means it's unlikely to happen at all).

Waltz with Bashir is a searingly honest story, a pursuit of the truth, one man's search for his lost memory. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, the director Ari Folman was there as a 19 year old soldier. In spite of recurring dreams that haunt him, Folman remembers very little of that period. The film represents his search for those memories, tracking down his old comrades and recounting their stories as well.

While Persepolis uses a beautifully stylised artwork consistent with the graphic novels it's based on, Waltz with Bashir has employed a look more in common with Richard Linklater's Waking Life. This works really well as the film partly adopts a documentary style. The characters are life-like but morph as required as reality, fantasy, memories and dreams merge. And like Persepolis, this is an effective means of involving the audience in a compelling story that might otherwise be too alienating (ie, war, revolution, politics, etc).

The film's success can be attributed to a number of factors that all work well in tandem. The animation serves the narrative. The narrative is well-written. While political and other readings may be made from it (ultimately, it can only be seen as anti-war), the story is fiercely personal. In one respect, it's like Alice in Wonderland, as Ari descends the rabbit hole trying to find his lost memories. He visits friends, shares stories, attends counselling and we feel we're there with Ari, on his journey. I was moved by his underlying, almost existentialist attitude. Don't miss it.

P.S. Unlike Persepolis, this is NOT suitable for children (sex and violence).

Rage and Glory
This is the only film I managed to fit in for the Israeli Film Festival, and it was an excellent choice. The IFF website fairly describes it as "possibly the best Israeli film ever made". This may or may not be true, but I have no issue with that claim. How ironic to see it straight after Waltz with Bashir. One film documents the struggles of a people, the other documents how the government of these same people have become aggressors towards others.

Rage and Glory had me on the edge of my seat for all of it's 118 minutes of running time. It instantly recalls Jean-Pierre Melville's L'armée des ombres (The Army of Shadows). There is a constant sense of danger and mistrust, engendered by an ongoing war of terror by Jewish freedom-fighters against the ruling British who created all kinds of obstacles to those seeking asylum from the European Holocaust.

Like Waltz with Bashir, the film's impact is strong because of the personal perspective that the film adopts, rather than the over-arching political big picture.

Kung Fu Killers
I entered the cinema mistakenly thinking I was going to see The Man From Hong Kong. Not that it mattered, as I found this documentary (or sorts) about stuntman Grant Page going to Hong Kong to learn something about Kung Fu, enjoyable enough. Riding on the crest of the Ozploitation wave, this is a good companion piece, and is a humorous (often in ways unintended at the time) for its documentation of times past. I still remember those days when Bruce Lee and Kung Fu were immensely popular, and I might have to get myself a copy of Enter the Dragon for the benefit of my son.

Bitter & Twisted
This is an Australian drama, a bleak-ish story that is a cut above most. A family is trying to come to terms with the death of the oldest son and we follow each family member and their personal challenges as they attempt to get their lives on track. Needless to say, the basic story resonated with me, and I felt the depictions of grief to be authentic.

This is mature film-making by a young crew. The characters are believable and non-glamorous (which is a positive). While the film is not completely successful in conveying its narrative, it's an impressive first film and I look forward to seeing future endeavours by Christopher Weekes.

Three Blind Mice
This is quite an accomplishment by the young Mr. Newton. Not only has he written and produced a film that is ambitious, contemporary and original, but he also dominates the screen with confident yet understated performances whenever he is in a scene (and his character is not a minor one).

Opening without music, the film immediately recalls European realist dramas, though as the story unfolded, it seems to have more in common with the improvisational works of John Cassavetes. In fact, once I drew the Cassavetes connection (about 2/3 into the film), some of the cinéma verité aesthetics that might have bothered me until then, actually enhanced the cinematic experience. I'm referring to things like the sometimes shaky hand-held camera (which was never excessive, for those of you who, like me, might find that distracting and off-putting) and a slight lack of narrative coherence.

Basically the film follows three young navy officers (played by Newton, Ewen Leslie and Toby Schmitz) in Sydney for a night's shore leave before being deployed to the Gulf for six months. Boys will be boys, and there are other dynamics at play as these guys get in and out of different situations as the night wears on.

There are some gripping and unexpected yet realistic turns in the film that manage to surprise an audience. The dialogue is sharp and well-written. There is a confidence in the writing that doesn't require everything to be spelt out.

Newton has assembled a really strong cast of supporting actors, most notably Gracie Otto (daughter of Barry, who also appears in the film) whose character is really sassy and charismatic. Other notable supports include Marcus Graham, Alex Dimitriades, Bob Franklin, Pia Miranda, Brendan Cowell, Bud Tingwell and Jacki Weaver.

Leslie's lead performance in 2005's Jewboy (one of my favourite local films of that year) was very impressive and was convincing in this film. Schmitz's performance felt a bit wooden in comparison to the others. Nonetheless, I enjoyed this film a lot and hope it gets a theatrical release. It deserves an arthouse audience, at least. Newton shows some skill as a writer and director and is a talent to watch out for.

All My Friends are Leaving Brisbane
This is not my kind of film, but for what it is - a romantic comedy - it is well-made, and I'm surprised that I've heard nothing of it getting a theatrical release. The film has a protagonist who looks remarkably like Toni Collette's character in Muriel's Wedding (and another who is strongly reminiscent of a younger Dave Hughes), and there are parallel themes about being stuck in one's hometown and getting married (as a solution to one's problems). I don't find All My Friends are Leaving Brisbane as smart a film, but it does cater well to its target audience, namely twenty-somethings. It's narrative has much in common with the many Hollywood high school comedies that find their way onto our screens, but aiming at a slightly older demographic.

Essentially the film is a romantic comedy and is understandably riddled with clichés, yet manages to remain fresh, with some clever comedic devices and with a definite Australian flavour that for once is not cringeworthy. This film deserves to do well with a mainstream audience and is better than most of the imports in its genre.

The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark
By my calculation, 41 people attended this screening, and 26 stayed until the end. Most who left, did so in the first 30-40 minutes. I can't say I got much from it, being a word-for-word reading of Shakespeare's play. It may just as well be in another language without subtitles. I think one needs to be a theatre person to appreciate it. If one has read the play and understands the meaning of the language, it would certainly enable one to understand it more. Filmed in fairly dreary dogme-style, it did little for me, no matter how accomplished the performances may have been.


Glenn said...

Well, you already know my thoughts on most of the Aussie films, but I just thought I'd let you know that All My Friends Are Leaving Brisbane could only secure a release in - naturally - Brisbane and has recently been released on DVD.

I reckon Three Blind Mice though will be able to crack through a little bit at the box office and become at least a moderately-sized hit (half a mil certainly doesn't seem too hard to achieve considering it'll surely get good press upon it's proper release).

Nicholas J. Johnson said...

I love Mabuse! One of my favourite films.

The Honest Con Man

Paul Martin said...

Glenn, that's a shame about All My Friends are Leaving Brisbane. It seems many worthy Australian films languish simply because no-one takes responsibility to market them. I hope Three Blind Mice doesn't suffer the same fate.

Nicholas, I can see why you'd like Dr. Mabuse.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed All My Friends are leaving Brisbane.. my review is on I too am suprised it cannot get a release. It would have been a very good fit perhaps for the Classic Elsternwick. The lead actress, writer and director did a one session Q&A at ACMI last year.. a Sat afternoon around 4pm? Without wishing to bag ACMI perhaps it would have done better elsewhere. The turnout to that session was about 100. Quite a few of the cast can be seen in Underbelly. Our lovely lead actress here as Jason Moran's girlfriend in Ep 1 and of course Glyton as Carl Williams. And yes Paul the lead actor in this does look like a young Dave Hughes. This actor was in a MTC production last year in Melbourne that I meant to get to to follow him. Sadly the thought was there but the flesh was not willing!

Still I'm constantly amazed that despite quite a bit of promotion and no doubt quite a large email database that some of the advance screenings the Classic put on with considerable flair and panache still don't draw the sort of crowds I'd expect.


Paul Martin said...

John, the Classic attracts a fairly old audience. I think All My Friends Are Leaving Brisbane would do well in the cinemaplexes, were it adequately marketed.

ACMI does more for Australian cinema than anywhere else I know, with their regular Australian Perspective screenings each week. I think, though, that it's layout alienates conventional audiences. To attract a wider audience, it needs to be more like a conventional cinema, not that I'm advocating that. Thanks for your comments.