Thursday, January 29, 2009

Heat Wave

Man, this heat wave is something, isn't it? I've experienced weather like this in Perth, but Melbourne? I don't remember it quite this bad. I ducked into Melbourne Central after work last night to see Gran Torino, a way of escaping the heat before I go home. The missus met up with me as well, so we made an evening of it. I think Eastwood films are hit and miss, though even his misses are better than most. Anyway, I didn't have high expectations and was really taken at how entertaining and thought-provoking this film is. I might have more to say about it, as I think it's worth a few words. However, I'm sure it'll get lots of word-of-mouth and doesn't need my accolades. For what it's worth, I can't think of a better film to see on a hot evening when you just want to escape the heat and have a good time. I've got to say that I was a bit shocked to come out close to 9pm and find the temperature still at 40 degrees Celsius.

This evening, I was tossing up whether to see Gran Torino again or to risk it with The Spirit. I blew it; I chose the latter. The casting is shocking. Scarlett Johannsen sleep-walks her way through the film. Samuel L. Johnson is really getting on my nerves with the same old recognisable traits that we all loved in Pulp Fiction but it's wearing pretty thin 15 years later. The lead is so uncharismatic. The film is bearable under the extreme weather conditions, but only just. Damn it, Gran Torino deserves another look.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Change of Plans

Mon 12 January, 2009, 8am
As I lay on the pavement, I wasn’t sure if I was dead or alive. No, I must be alive, but in what state? How long had I been there? Had I lost consciousness? I don’t think so. A woman bent over me and, afraid that she might try to move me, I said in a raspy voice, “don’t touch me” and I don’t think I saw her again.

The pain was intense but how extensive I was injured I knew not. I did know that shock and adrenalin was insulating me from the worst of it. I beseeched The Source or whatever you want to call it: god, Nature, the Universe. I internalised a sort of prayer, but I didn’t want to ask for anything for myself. I simply wanted to be able to accept whatever hand I had been dealt. “May everything be as it should”. Such is the influence of the Eastern mysticism with which I delved into during my youth.

After a two-week Christmas break, I was keen to get back on my bicycle and ride to work, but with a cold and sore throat, I decided to take the motorcycle. Eastbound on Lonsdale St., just before Swanston St. and only 200 metres from my destination, a DHL delivery van driver changed lanes without looking and, without indicating, sideswiped me and forced my motorcycle out of control and into a steel street sign. That’s the last thing I could make out before I hit the ground.

As I lay there on my back, largely immobile but writhing in pain, a crowd of indeterminate size, office and retail workers gathered, frantically pulling out their mobile phones and dialling 000. The guy in a Chubb Security shirt, standing over me and speaking to the operator, became my eyes to the world. From him I discerned that I was not the only one injured. Another man was bleeding profusely from the head and someone was holding a towel to contain the blood loss. I didn’t know then that my motorcycle had mounted the footpath, hit a pedestrian and came to a stop on the footpath. I didn’t know how badly he was injured, but nor did I know how badly was I. It didn’t look or sound good.

I closed my eyes and centred myself in a kind of meditation. I focused on the place within myself that I call my ‘psychic screen’, where I ‘see’ things, including colour. I often see purple and chartreuse (the pale green shade that my psychic father also used to ‘see’), and on occasions brilliant blue or yellow. The colour I saw was indeed strong, but not particularly pleasant. It was a murky orange which I deduced must be associated with severe physical trauma. While I had no out-of-body experience per se, I suspect it may also indicate my ethereal body’s not being quite aligned with my physical body, a feeling I had very strongly (and which lasted for several days).

Opening my eyes, I took to analysing my state. Vague pain was everywhere, but sharp in specific places: both shins, the inside of my left knee, above and below my right knee, my throat and chest a little, and I couldn’t move my right arm without sharp pain. One at a time, I moved each of my appendages and my fingers and toes. Pain, yes, but no signs of fractures. So far, so good. The armour in the Dainese gear that I’d been wearing every day for five years, rain, hail or shine had served me well. None of my most vulnerable spots were damaged, though the areas around them were heavily bruised.

My neck and back were stiff but numb, so I couldn’t ascertain my spine’s state. I had to get my helmet off. With the intense pain in my right upper arm, I managed to remove my right glove, undo my helmet strap and remove it, revealing this otherwise faceless body to an assembled crowd I could barely see from my position. I must have looked like an Egyptian mummy clumsily coming to life. Pulling down the zip of my motorcycle jacket, my now exposed new white business shirt and black Italian silk tie revealed a guy not that different to the office workers around me. Raising my bum, with some effort I undid the zip that attached my protective jacket to my trousers. I knew that others would struggle with it when the time came.

I felt all over my head but I could not detect any fractures or blood. There was slight bruising on my left jaw, at the point where I later discovered my full-face helmet was fractured. That was one of the best thousand dollar investments I ever made. The underneath of my jaw was also sore, from the helmet straps. I systematically felt my teeth with my tongue and there was no sign of chips or breakage.

Ambulances arrived, the paramedics assessed me and decided to put me in a neck-brace as a precaution. I remember joking with the paramedics and tried to be a good patient, complying with all their instructions. The documentarian in me urged me to pull out the digital camera in my pocket and record what was going on in video and/or stills, but the damn pain in my arm wouldn’t allow me.

The paramedics were concerned at the sensitivity of my arm but couldn’t remove the jacket while I was in the brace. Though I offered, they declined my invitation to remove my trousers in the street, but did so once I was in the ambulance. I then raised my leg into the air and could see my grazed shin. I didn’t know it then, but the thick plastic knee armour had taken a severe knock that had continued along the shin armour. Without my safety gear, I almost certainly would have had a smashed knee and possibly a fractured shin. Though I had bruising around the right knee, the knee itself was fine and the shin lost a couple of layers of skin from the shin guard scraping against my leg, a superficial injury.

Being lifted onto a stretcher and into the ambulance was indeed a surreal experience, like something out of a film. My already limited view was restricted even further in the neck-brace. I managed to pull out my mobile phone. I called my manager to say I won’t be in for a few days – I’d been in an accident but should be fine. I wasn’t yet ready to phone the missus, and deal with her hysteria. My condition needed to be stabilised first.

Continued in Part 2

Friday, January 23, 2009

Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Road (Sam Mendes, USA, 2008)
Sam Mendes is proving himself a very deft director, not that any of his previous work indicated otherwise, but with successive films he's certainly accumulating an impressive body of work. Revolutionary Road is a really well-made film that I find hard to flaw. Mendes has removed all the overt humour and satire he used in American Beauty and given us a very raw and real suburban drama.

The film is multi-layered, tackling various themes, some overt and some very subtle. This is where Mendes shows his skill. He depicts themes specific to the period (the 1950s), but doesn't join all the dots. He assumes we know enough of the period not to have to articulate everything we see on screen.

Meanwhile, the more overt elements comprise largely the dynamics between the two main characters, married couple Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April (Kate Winslet). The film socially and culturally is set in the 50s and the idiosyncrasies of the time are well captured, but more importantly, Mendes demonstrates his astute awareness of the complex nature of conjugal relationships that are universal. This element is so rich, depicted with so much skill that is a testament to the ability of the director and the excellent performances of both DiCaprio and Winslet.

Frank is a more significant character in the film, so DiCaprio really gets to show that he is maturing as an actor. I thought there were hints of this in The Aviator, but his youthfulness worked against him in that film. In this one, he seems perfect for the part.

Winslet has got to be one of my favourite British actresses and this has got to be one of her best performances. It's nuanced, strong, conflicted, erratic and captures the duality of femininity. I'd have to say it's one of the most authentic roles of its type that I've ever seen. She has a natural non-conventional beauty and I was struck by the similarities with Gillian Anderson, another actress that I also find both very attractive and smart.

A theme the film explores is the idealism that is sacrificed by reality and the need to make ends meet or get ahead in the world. The conflict this causes within a relationship, and the evolution (or devolution) of love is examined with heart-breaking honesty.

Michael Shannon was excllent in Shotgun Stories, and his performance in Revolutionary Road plays a curious role. Adding a light touch of a different kind, his character is basically a device to articulate that which normally is unspoken in such a society. Through him, we can also question what is insanity, or who is truly insane.

The film looks great, the art production gives a very authentic ambience, the support characters are all authentic (Kathy Bates' character is great, especially with her comments at the end), the camera work is excellent and Thomas Newman's score, though not dissimilar to his work in American Beauty, seems just right.

I know many often refer to American Beauty as a satire or comedy, but I never took it as that. I always felt that it was so close to the bone in its depictions of family life that it was pure
drama, albeit made more digestible (for mass consumption) through the use of humour (which is different to comedy). Revolutionary Road does tread similar territory to American Beauty which I think shows how serious a story-teller Mendes is, even with funny material. The dynamics, issues and aesthetics are very different between both films, but it's interestingto compare them.

Good American dramas have been very thin on the ground for some time, and Revolutionary Road is long-overdue in this regard. It boosts my faith in cinema releases.

Lastly, the less you know and have seen about the film, the better. I'd forgotten what it was about until it got started and I loved that things didn't pan out the way I expected.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Class

Entre les murs (The Class, Laurent Cantet, France, 2008)
Today I saw this Palme d'Or winning film for the second time. Coming out of the cinema, I found myself in conversation with Age film critic, Philipa Hawker, whose first comments I completely agreed with - why did they change the title? So much meaning is lost in translation and the actual French title "Between the Walls" is so much more poignant and carries nuances that the English title discards.

I'll say up front that I find it a good film, but not the masterpiece I often find a Palme d'Or winner to be. My partner, a secondary school teacher herself, was keen to see it and I was happy to see it again (not something I do frequently). I enjoyed the film more on second viewing, which reflects that it stands up to scrutiny.

The Class is no "To Sir With Love", though it has elements in common. The film is based on a book by François Bégaudeau, who plays the teacher in the film, and based on a year of his experience as a teacher in a similar Parisian school with "difficult" demographics, ie, poverty, unemployment and immigration issues. The film employs a cinéma vérité look as if it were a documentary. The element that most distinguishes the film from others about school life is that the perspective is entirely from that of the teacher, and only from within the school walls (most of it within the one classroom). There is no "god" view that gives us privileged insights into the minds or lives of the children or even the teachers. It's as if we were there in the classroom documenting this one Year 4/5 French class over a span of months.

Cantet has a history of making observational films on non-sensationalist subjects, on revealling the drama of ordinary people in realistic situations. This is so in The Class, in which the drama is believable. Conflict occurs in the classroom and the teacher needs to control the constant threat of disorder. Sometimes he handles it better than other times, and there is no "Mr. Perfect" thing going on. In fact, sometimes the teacher inadvertently contributes to conflict.

There is a natural tendency for the audience to identify with François' general policies in the classroom. He seems a nice enough guy, sincere and with good strategies for eliciting participation and imparting knowledge. Yet, in meetings with other teachers, we see conflicting ideas and can't help but agree when another teacher accuses him of just trying to keep peace in the classroom.

In keeping it real, Cantet portrays the difficulties and small triumphs faced by teachers and depicting the behaviours of adolescents that a teacher has to deal with. As my partner often says, a teacher's role is often just managing behaviour, in order to build trust and create an environment where children choose to learn. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.

François is a French teacher and grammar is a much stronger component of education in that language than it is in ours (in this country at least). As a student of the French language, it was at first a little distracting to find I was digesting the lessons in l'imparfait infinitif and the subjunctif, which I found a little amusing. And it was also amusing to see the behaviours up close that I constantly hear complaints about in my own home, war stories from my partner's work.

A curious element is the differences between the French educational system than ours. For example, the procedures of discipline and expulsion. Or how student representatives are present during staff evaluations of students. These are small cultural details that I find rewarding from watching foreign cinema. It reminds me of how when I travel overseas, I am more interested in the seemingly mundane, like travelling on public transport and visiting a supermarket to see the differences in everyday trivialities than in visiting major landmarks.

The Class is not as emotionally engaging as Cantet's earlier Time Out, but still a quietly satisfying film that has potentially broad appeal as solid adult cinema, a good French film. It should be especially of interest to teachers, older students and parents. It opens this Thursday, and in Melbourne, screens exclusively at the Nova.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Upcoming events

Happy new year, whatever that may mean to you. For me, holidays are a time to take it easy, to rest, to do a few things around the house that are otherwise neglected. I have time on my hands but there's bugger all on at the cinemas. I'm generally not a DVD person, but I've been watching a couple and hope to watch a few more before I go back to work in a week and a half.

I thought I'd post about what I think might be worth catching up on at the cinemas over the next few weeks (other than what I've previously mentioned):
  • Chevolution screens at ACMI until Sunday.
  • Mad Max screens at ACMI this Saturday 4pm, with Mad Max 2 and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome screening over the following two Saturdays. I've never seen any of these so am hoping to catch up on a bit of local film history.
  • Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas screens at the Astor on Monday 5 Jan.
  • The Conformist screens at the Astor on Sunday 11 Jan.
  • A new print of David Lean's Blithe Spirit is getting half a dozen screenings at ACMI between 17 and 26 Jan (Australia Day).
  • ACMI is celebrating the Australia Day weekend with a tribute to indigenous actor David Gulpilil. The films are: Walkabout, Storm Boy, Gulpilil: One Red Blood, The Last Wave, Rabbit Proof Fence, Dark Age, The Tracker and Mad Dog Morgan. I've not seen any of these, but am keen to see at least five of them (if I can fit them in).
  • Melbourne Filmoteca's screening of Bialet Massé, un siglo despues (Bialet Massé: A Century Later) at ACMI on Tuesday 27 Jan at 7.30pm.
Some of you may be aware of my Google Calendar of Film Events, which you can see at the bottom of this webpage. Google have recently made available a tool to automate the synchronisation of Google Calendars with Outlook. For me, this is fantastic as it means I only need to maintain my Outlook calendar and the Google Calendar will automatically synchronise with it. Previously, if a release date changed, I would update it in Outlook but was often tardy in updating the Google calendar. You can now follow my Google Calendar of Film Events with confidence that it's as accurate as possible.

If you don't know about Google Calendars, take a guided tour on the website. It's a great way to keep informed by subscribing to one or more special interest calendars, or creating one or more of your own. You can collaborate with others (as I did at MIFF last year) and so on. You can, for example, subscribe to a calendar that you find through a search according to your criteria, and whatever events interest you, choose to receive reminders as either popups or emails.