Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Week in Review (x2) - 19/10/08

Oh, life is bigger
It's bigger than you
And you are not me
The lengths that I will go to
The distance in your eyes
Oh no I've said too much
I set it up
- REM, Losing My Religion

This used to be my favourite song. It was important to me at an important turning point in my life, when I lost religion (even though that's not what the song is about). It's also a song that pops into my head when life is full, too full, when it's big, bigger than you. And you are not me. Get the drift?

Well, it's been two weeks. Life has been so full, and I still scarcely have time to post my weekly summary. But I want to do it, for myself at least. I can't do credit for many of these films, but here goes.
  • Del rosa al amarillo (From Pink… to Yellow, Manuel Summers, Spain, 1963)
  • Ta'm-e gilas (The Taste of Cherry, Abbas Kiarostami, Iran/France, 1997)
  • Waitress (Adrienne Shelly, USA, 2006)
  • Zert (The Joke, Jaromil Jires, Czechoslovakia, 1969)
  • Kladivo na carodejnice (Witches' Hammer, Otakar Vávra, Czechoslovakia, 1969)
  • Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, Australia, 1971)
  • Burn After Reading (Joel & Ethan Coen, USA, 2008)
  • Towelhead (Alan Ball, USA, 2008)

From Pink… to Yellow
Screening as part of the ACMI Focus on Víctor Erice & Abbas Kiarostami, I suppose this film by Manuel Summers sneaks in as Erice has only made three films. It fits in thematically, with its depiction of life from a child's perspective. I can't say it overly grabbed me and when the narrative shifted to an elderly couple, I dozed off.

The Taste of Cherry
I loved this film, which reminded me of Kiarostami's later film, 10. Shot mostly from within a car, a guy drives around town looking for someone to assist him in his mission to take his own life. The story is elusive (we never find out his exact reasons) and it has a controversial and ambiguous ending. The story is somewhat episodic as different people find themselves in the car with our 'hero'. The different characters and their respective responses to our hero are convincing and compelling. The final character's role is just fantastic, as he shares a story with our hero. I really related to it, as he describes how he also, some decades earlier had contemplated suicide, and what got him through. It reminded me of the adolescent neighbour in American Beauty, how he saw beauty everywhere, even in a plastic shopping bag blowing in the wind, or the way light reflected in the still warm blood of his neighbour. Very moving.

The missus was watching this on DVD and it had lost none of the sparkle that did it for me the first time on the big screen. One of the best romantic comedies of all time, not that it follows any romantic comedy conventions. For the record, my other favourites are Truly, Madly, Deeply and Like Water for Chocoloate.

The Joke
Wow, this Czech New Wave is seriously good stuff. No wonder the commies didn't let this film see the light of day for twenty years. A guy is cynical, unhappy and unable to form meaningful relationships. When he revisits his hometown, old memories flood his mind, and we learn how he got to be the person he is. Fundamentalism, in all its guises, stinks.

Witches' Hammer
Attacking exactly the same themes as The Joke, this story of medieval witch hunting is just as overt a criticism of communism, in spite of its use of metaphors. It also didn't see the light of day until 1989, when the iron curtain came down. I hadn't realised how widespread the hysteria over witchcraft was in Europe, and explains why many fled to the US (where a different form of hysteria-fundamentalism has arisen).

Wake in Fright
I was initially put off when I realised this MUFF screening was from a DVD. But once I got into it after a couple of minutes, it didn't really matter. The story is that good, and the visuals were quite OK. Now I know why this film has such a strong reputation; it is a genuine compelling film.

Burn After Reading
I found Burn After Reading absolutely entertaining. I didn't have high expectations as I think the Coen brothers get mixed results when they do comedy. The humour in this film is full of deadpan irony, greatly understated at times, farcical at others, but always unpredictable yet believable.

While it is in no way an explicit commentary on The War On Iraq, clearly that's the subtext. I'd say it's the first successful film to tackle the issue of homeland security in the US, post 9-11, simply because it doesn't reference it at all. Like most Coen films, people motivated by greed have a plan, and things don't go to plan. There's blood and a reasonable body count. As in all matters concerning national security, it doesn't matter who gets hurt, innocent or not. What's important is that leadership is decisive, bodies are disposed of and people are seen to be doing their jobs. Right?

The lineup of actors looks awesome on paper, and they don't disappoint. Most of them play against type. The film is very original, very exciting and very contemporary. Well-worth seeing.

With all the hysteria over Bill Henson and his photography of naked or semi-naked children, it's amazing that Towelhead has been released with scarcely a whimper of complaint.

This is quite a gutsy film, tackling taboo subjects head-on and pulling few punches. This is intelligently written. It looks like what I call a quirky-indie comedy but isn't. There's so much truthful depictions that reflect the complexity of real-life issues such as racism, teenage sex and paedophilia. Like American Beauty, there are generally no good or bad guys, but both good and bad exist in most characters.

I liked the way Towelhead doesn't force a message down your throat. You don't necessarily know Ball's stance on an issue, such as teenage sex. He just depicts it a certain way, and you make up your own mind.

Toni Collette plays a fairly typical-looking role to what she generally does in US films, but her role is better written than most (like Little Miss Sunshine et al). The visuals of the film were a little distracting for me, such as the over-use of golden-sunset hues and over-contrast, something that has been done to death on US network TV shows. Most won't have the same problem with it as I (my missus didn't even notice). There are a couple of minor scenes that slightly lacked plausibility, but for the most part, the film successfully pulled off some pretty major risks. Big kudos for that.


Lynden Barber said...

Alan Ball is one of the greatest living dramatic storytellers. Six Feet Under is a major work of art that deserves to be watched and studied in 2, 3, 400 years time - assuming human society is still around.

Towelhead semed to me mega but since I missed the first 15 minutes (on my way to the preview I missed a crucial turn-off on Sydney's mega-confusing freeway system and was funnelled miles out of my way) I really need to see it properly.

It did strike me however that the storytelling rhythm was a bit flat - all the individual scenes I saw were powerful, but it seeemed to lack dynamism overall (does it suffer perhaps from an under-developed dramatic structure?). But as I said, I need to watch it from start to end.

Re. the lack of fuss compared to the Bill Henson imbroglio, surely the difference is that Henson used under-age models. Ball cast an 18-year-old as his under-age protagonist Jasira (though it's hard to believe - Summer Bishil is totally convincing in the role).

A few US reviews of Towelhead I read were shameful. For a critic to damn a film for being "confronting" is unforgiveable in my book. That should be a sign that a serious film is really working properly; by shaking us up, forcing us to examine what it's saying and how it's saying it. Good for the SMH's Paul Byrnes for tackling this head-on in his review.

I suspect what some US reviewers may have really found confronting (while lacking the courage or self-awareness to admit it) is that Summer Bishil's Jasira has absolutely gorgeous looks. Even typing that sentence makes me feel a little awkward - as it should.

To its credit the film doesn't encourage viewers to sexually objectify her (the camera is wisely moved away from her body when she disrobes).

But the sheer fact of being confronted with a sexual, good-looking teen who is nevertheless still a child will make many viewers uncomfortable. Isn't that the point?

Paul Martin said...

You spoke very highly of Six Feet Under on your blog some time ago, Lynden, and seeing the full set was on sale at JB Hi-Fi, I bought it blind on the strength of your comments. I have yet to watch them, but mind you, I have about 50 DVDs to watch.

It's a pity you missed the start of the film. It must affect your experience, but I can't comment on how much I think it would affect it.

Generally, I didn't find it flat, but perhaps it went on a little longer than it needed to.

I was aware that Bishil was 18 during filming, though I agree that she was convincing as a 13 year old. But her age isn't the point. It's the age she was depicting. I mean, the wowser's had Ken Park banned, and I believe it was over-18's depicting younger teenagers. Also, when the remake of Lolita came out, there was a huge uproar about paedophilia then also.

The blase way in which Jasira says she wants to continue having sex with her boyfriend, I would have thought this would have raised moral outrage from the usual sources.

For me, one of the strengths of the film is exactly that it is confronting. I agree that Bishil looks gorgeous, but I don't have a problem acknowledging that.

I thought the depictions of sexuality is just terrific. Despite a high degree of stylisation and the use of satire/comedy, there is real authenticity to the sexual interactions. Like Jasira's ho-hum attitude to the sex act, her complete naivete (reminiscent of the final sexual advance in American Beauty).

I think Towelhead lacks the narrative focus that American Beauty has. It wants to say something, and says it, but it's not clear what the overarching narrative is. But I'm comfortable with that. It's a refreshingly different offering for a general release.

Lynden Barber said...

"it's not clear what the overarching narrative is" -

Yes, I think you've nailed it. It kinds of drifts around without really building to a climax - though it might be that Ball is deliberately experimenting with narrative form here. Like you, I didnt find this killed the film at all.